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The Chicago Tribune reports that the Potbelly Sandwich Works chain, as it begins the process of franchising, has established an “unorthodox” approach to finding qualified partners to invest in its business.

“Company press releases say that its ideal franchisee candidates are ‘qualified married couples and life-partners who are sincere about integrating Potbelly into the fabric of their communities’,” the Tribune reports. “Potbelly, which also expects applicants to have had proven success in business, says it likes franchisees to have deep, preferably lifelong, roots, in a given area. Having children, or the intention of having children, is a bonus.”

Here’s the kicker: “Past restaurant experience is preferred but not required.”

The company stresses that it is not biased against single people, and it will not discriminate against people who do not fit its set of “druthers.” But the company’s preferences are clear - apparently with good reason.

The theory is that you can teach people how to operate a restaurant, or how to make a sandwich, or how to live up to food safety standards. But you can’t really teach people how to be connected to the fabric of their community, or why this is important. And community connections, Potbelly has found, are critical to a restaurant’s success.

That’s an interesting object lesson for other retailers in other venues. Sometimes, people pay too much attention to financial and logistics issues, both of which are important. But not enough attention is paid to the notion of community, and how being integral to a community, serving it and nurturing it, can help make a business successful.

Now, Potbelly’s approach, after years of franchising, could be found to be flawed. But it is an approach worth taking note of, because it teaches an important and eye-opening lesson for this Wednesday morning.

- Kevin Coupe
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