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TheStreet Open House

My Wonder Years at the Original Potbelly

Stock quotes in this article: PBPB, CMG, MCD

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I am not a fan of change, of modernity, or of chain restaurants, so I fear it was inevitable that my reaction to Friday's IPO of Potbelly (PBPB), where I worked for a summer in 1987 after my junior year of high school, would be somewhat bearish.

I'm not making a call on the stock, just preparing to gripe about the fact that things ain't what they used to be. That said, I am surprised at the number of positive things I have to say about the corporatization of Potbelly and everything it represents.

But first allow a bit of nostalgia. Potbelly wasn't merely a summer job for me in high school: it was (and I think to a degree remains) an institution on Lincoln Avenue in the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. My mother owned a store a few doors away, and when I was about six -- bored out of my mind waiting around for her -- she would let me walk over there and buy an ice cream. It was about three years before the six year-old Etan Patz would disappear in New York and missing children would start appearing on milk cartons. Needless to say, my six year-old daughter does not go to the store by herself.

I always liked hanging out at Potbelly. It was hard not to. It had a free jukebox and lots of antiques. The original owner, Peter Hastings, was an antique collector before it became cool, and he and my mom -- who collected weird things including antiques before that became cool -- had that in common.

I didn't really get to know Peter, though, until I went to work for him. My main observation about him was that he wasn't much fun. Upon reflection, what I think I observed is called being a boss. It's tough to be a boss and fun at the same time. It's one of the reasons I have tended to avoid opportunities to become one as they have come up in my career.

I very much remember the tension between trying to make customers happy and trying to make Peter happy. I was supposed to weigh the meat. Four ounces per sandwich, as I recall. Customers regularly leaned over the counter watching me make their sandwich and frequently asked me to "put a little more meat on there." I was supposed to charge 30 cents more. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. It often depended upon my mood. If Peter was around, of course, I did things by the book.

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