If you want people to buy your food, make it look appetizing. Show only the finest cuts of meat and lush melted cheese atop fresh, glistening vegetables. Make the customer taste the food with their eyes.
Unless you’re Potbelly. Then show people exactly what they’re in for.
The Potbelly Sandwich Shop restaurant chain was founded in 1977 in Chicago and today boasts more than 700 locations, mostly in the U.S. It’s similar to fast-casual chains like Subway, Quiznos and Jersey Mike’s. You go there for a cheap, acceptable but not exceptional sandwich, but with one notable difference: Potbelly is honest about who they are.
The bread is flat and looks stale. The roast beef lies limply on the bottom. And the veggies look like they were poured in from those mixed salad bags that get recalled for E. coli. Nothing about this picture is visually appetizing.
This kind of photographic honesty is an anomaly to food industry professionals. Charlie Chalkin, a professional food photographer, has shot food manipulated in all kinds of ways. He’s seen oil added for extra shine and glue applied to make things sit perfectly for the camera. But he’s never seen anything quite like Potbelly.
“It’s shocking to see that,” Chalkin says. “I don’t see how it could hurt them to put a little more effort into making their sandwiches look a little better.”
But Potbelly’s low-quality pictures provide a valuable service. They properly set sandwich chain expectations. They know who they are and what their customers want. People don’t come to Potbelly for artisanal crafted subs. They chose Potbelly because of its efficiency, speed and its reliably OK food. The food tastes fine, which is great. The quality is on par with other sandwich chains and their soft-baked cookies are terrific. There’s nothing particularly special about the food at Potbelly except the accuracy with which they portray their sandwiches.
Sandwich chains regularly employ unreasonable false advertising because quickly made sandwiches can’t look good. If you’re trying to get people in and out as fast as possible—as Potbelly and others aim to do—your sandwiches inevitably become sloppy, flat messes. Subway ads portraying fresh sandwiches ignore the ugliness that goes into them, from chemically-induced bread to carelessly stacked meat.
As uninspiring as that Potbelly roast beef sandwich looks, it’s an accurate depiction of the sandwich you’ll get. The bread doesn’t pop. The meat doesn’t shine. It’s just a lazily sliced roll with ingredients mushed inside, one half awkwardly leaning on the other. And if you think that’s honest, check out their grilled cheese.
That thing is just grotesque, but it sets your expectations exactly where they should be. This isn’t a diagonally sliced Kraft Singles grilled cheese from your childhood. It’s two types of yellow cheese melted on a hero. It’s exactly how a grilled cheese from a mediocre sandwich chain should look.
With Potbelly, what you see is what you get. You can keep your unrealistic sandwich beauty standards. In a world of unending mediocre sandwich chains, Potbelly is one of a kind.