Adam Bennett – Potbelly Sandwich Shop

The legal ingredient for sandwich success

It’s an ambitious growth agenda his employer pursues, but Adam Bennett can put aside the legal jargon and describe in simple terms what it all comes down to.

“To make a really great sandwich, we must start at home,” he explains.

And the ingredients aren’t just the breads, meats, cheeses and whatnots that go into the offerings of Potbelly Sandwich Shop. According to Bennett, it’s just as much about the people who prepare the goods. The better the company enables them to do their jobs, the more the reputation spreads and prospective franchisees emerge.

As a director and assistant general counsel of this growing chain, Bennett has a role in just about every aspect of the game plan but mainly focuses on labor and employment, which, of course, brings him back to the people who make the sandwiches.

It’s a cut-throat industry, he says about casual dining and takeout with so many chains vying for the same sort of employee behind the counter and on the road. Thus, it’s even more important to recruit and retain while minding the labor laws of practically every jurisdiction as Potbelly seeks to quadruple its 450 or so outlets.

Not for rookies

But it’s not just any kind of franchisee that Potbelly wants to attract. As Bennett explains, the company is most interested in those who’ve been around this track as owner and operator of another operation.

“We’re not looking for those franchising for the first time,” he tells Vanguard in September from the Connecticut home where he remotely serves the Chicago-headquartered company. “We want them set up for success and capable of running a business of this size, which takes a lot of hard work.”

He’s joined in this search by two other in-house lawyers who work almost exclusively on identifying the best prospects. While the company has mechanisms to repossess a unit that falls short of standards, Bennett says they haven’t had to do so on his watch.

“To that end, we’re constantly assessing what our strategy is on labor management,” he assures. “The focus of our strategy is remembering that we, as a company, depend on the people working at our shops.”

But things happen in shops, he goes on to say. Soda machines, HVAC, freezers—anything can malfunction, and Bennett is collaborating with facilities personnel to ensure problems are addressed. Several times a year, he’ll even go behind a counter and essentially back to his roots—his father worked in food service, and the younger Bennett joined him for several summers to supplement his teacher salary. Menial labor it was not.

“Unfortunately, when the concept of skilled labor is thrown around, food service workers aren’t included under that umbrella,” Bennett laments. “You cannot survive in this industry without being skilled.”

Changing labor front

While he says that aspect remains a constant, much has changed on the restaurant employment front, with Bennett keeping tabs on evolving rules and regulations.

Himself a young man of color with short, stylish dreadlocks, Bennett might have a personal stake in keeping Potbelly compliant with the so-called CROWN laws that commenced in California and have since spread to a dozen other states. That’s CROWN as in the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act drafted and sponsored by a state legislator in response to people of color, especially women, alleging workplace discrimination due to personal style. While the laws are similar wherever adapted, penalties vary.

He’s also monitoring the U.S. Department of Labor, whose $35,568 salary threshold for overtime exemption may rise to $55,068 and allow millions of employees—180,000 in hospitality and leisure—higher pay for working beyond a regular shift.

“I’m always balancing the day-to-day minutia of overseeing labor and employment with my own research to keep the company appraised of all new legal developments, so they’ll have lead time to make necessary changes,” he says.

Simply smart business

To Bennett, compliance on any front is common sense, what with much of Potbelly’s clientele being young, socially conscious people. He reminds how corporate reputations spread via social media and of litigation’s costs. Many of any company’s legal issues being employee-related, he tries to stay atop of disputes everywhere, deciding what merits investigation or discipline and, should court action be filed, selecting outside counsel.

It’s all part of Bennett’s transition into in-house law, a move he made in September 2021 after being impressed by General Counsel Adiya Dixon whom he describes as “a female supervisor of color whom I could connect with on all levels.” Before then, he honed his skills with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur and Ulmer & Berne, respectively, following his 2016 graduation from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

That made him a double-Buckeye, Bennett having overcome long odds to attend and excel as a 2011 Ohio State undergrad and political science major.

“My parents made less than $20,000 while raising three kids,” he says. “I’d go to sleep listening to my mom crying as she wondered how to pay bills or put food on the table.”

But his parents instilled a work ethic and love for learning that he leveraged into a full undergrad scholarship. Afterward, Bennett earned credentials from Lipscomb University to teach eighth-grade history in Tennessee for two years, which he says prepped him for law school and a legal career.

“If you can maintain your calm before an eighth-grade class, you can face anything,” he says with a laugh. “That taught me a lot about myself and how to get by in this world.”

He’s kept his cool in many roles since then and married a doctor. But happy as Bennett is in his domestic life, he acknowledges it was with another woman when he first tasted a Potbelly.

“My first date at Ohio State was to a Potbelly,” he recalls. “I was a freshman on a budget, and it was all I could afford. And as a new associate at Porter, we had a Potbelly in the building. It fed me daily for two years. Now it, and my wife, help me pay back my law school loan.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Fall III 2023 Edition here.

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Spring IV 2024



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