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The journey from CEO to franchisee is an unusual one, but it works for this father-son duo.

How the former CEO of Potbelly is thriving as a franchisee for the brand

Father-and-son duo Bryant and Hampden Keil now own 12 Potbelly stores, 15 years after the former stepped down as CEO of the sandwich chain

If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.

In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we spoke with father-and-son duo and Potbelly franchisees, Bryant and Hampden Keil, who have exclusive development rights in seven of Maryland’s counties and plans to open 27 Potbelly stores.

We spoke with Bryant about his unique journey from longtime CEO of Potbelly (and first head of the company after the brand’s founders) to franchisee. Both Bryant and Hampden discussed their strategies and goals as a family business.

Store count: 12 open right now, with 15 more in the pipeline in the Maryland area

From customer to CEO

Bryant: My journey with Potbelly started in 1996, and even a little bit before that as a customer. There were always lines out the door [of the original location] and one time I saw this guy placing a cardboard sign outside and I asked him, “is this your store?” He said yes, and I asked him, “Wow, why haven’t you opened up more locations?” and he said, “I just haven’t met the right person yet.” And I told him, “Well, you have now!” Then, we went into a yearlong conversation after that, and he was very cautious about it. I ended up buying the whole business. I told him, “I'm going to build this into something pretty big.” Years later, I was able to give him a significant number of shares to bring him back into the business, because that first store obviously meant a lot to him.

Hampden: While this was all happening, I wasn’t even born yet!

Hitting the ground running

Bryant: By the time we started, I knew I needed to make the operations model flow a little bit better, and I want to elevate the food. So, I went in the store and worked in it to figure out how things rolled, and then started on the adventure to open more locations. We were pretty successful in doing that and raised about $250 million of venture capital funding. Howard Schultz of Starbucks was one of our initial investors. These investors set us up for a great trajectory, and that got us up to about 250 stores, and then it stopped becoming fun. Then I became chairman of the board and brought in some really seasoned operators, and they took the company public. I was getting a lot of pressure to franchise early on, and I just wanted to make sure it worked everywhere. As we kept growing — we went to Texas and we went to Minnesota —every step along the way, we had to prove that the concept worked in other places so that it could franchise. Now the brand is being run by Bob Wright and a group of people who understand the franchise world better than I ever did.

Coming back as a franchisee

Bryant: I wear this weird hat here, and I don't know what to call myself. I bought the original store, and grew it from one location to hundreds. I feel a very close connection with the company, but because Hampden and I came back as franchisees, we see it from two unique sides. He and I have such a great relationship because he's a very strong individual, and he’s also very fair. He listens better than anybody and will tell you in the nicest way if he disagrees with you. I really think the path ahead [for us] is very good for franchising.

Becoming a family business

Hampden: My life has always revolved around food and restaurants. When I was in college, I got a job at a bar, and my dad wasn’t too happy about it, but I was pretty much running the place. Then, after that, I got a job with Lettuce Entertain You and I learned so much from them. My dad and I decided that we were ready to do this together and I got involved and it has been such a great experience. I like seeing how my dad looks at things. Sometimes I’ll ask him what he thinks of something and he’ll say, “That happened to me 20 years ago.” I don't always give them the credit for him teaching me a lot, but I do learn a lot from him. It’s great having a partner who has been through it all already.

Differences between being a CEO and franchisee

Bryant: We were able to inherit a lot of incredible people with long tenure from Potbelly who love the brand. Our standards are high because we're so high-touch in the stores. The reality is, when you have 400 corporate-owned stores, it's hard to manage that many. So, we’re not managing that many and we’re able to execute at a very high level.

Challenges of changing jobs

Bryant: I'm used to making every decision about the business, so turning the ship over [to someone else] was a bit of a process. Back in the day when I was CEO, we said, “we're going to change this recipe. We're going to change this cookie,” and we just did it…. Now, to have such a strong leadership team in place, it makes us feel like our family legacy is in good hands. I have every confidence as a franchisee that they’re going to execute on the franchise growth plan.

**This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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