When you meet Alan Johnson, the new President and CEO of Potbelly, you know right away that there’s going to be lots of laughter, conversation and stories to require at least one bottle of great wine and a few sandwiches.
Join me for a conversation that takes us on a ride from South Africa, working for Michael Eisner, being the CEO of BevMo! and why Alan loves going to the grocery store for hours and not always hitting the Amazon Prime button.
Join me and Alan for an “award-winning” sips and sandwiches podcast and “Don’t forget to hug the stove!”
Here is an overview of the first part of our conversation. Enjoy and grab your favorite Potbelly sandwich and bottle of wine!
Jessica Altieri: [00:00:09] Welcome to Wine Conversations. I’m your host Jessica Altieri, CEO and certified sommelier of the Wine Channel TV Digital Network. This is podcast number 14 “Sips and Sandwiches” with Potbelly CEO Alan Johnson in Chicago on Monday February 12th, 2018. A glass of wine is just a conversation waiting to happen as I always say, and today’s conversation is with Alan Johnson the CEO of Potbelly and we are sipping some Napa cellars Cabernet to get the conversation started.
Jessica Altieri: [00:00:49] Welcome to Wine Conversations.
Alan Johnson: [00:00:51] Hey thanks Jessica. Lovely to be here. Great to see you all. How are you enjoying the Chicago winter so far?
Alan Johnson: [00:00:59] Look there’s no such thing as bad weather. There is only inappropriate clothing, so once I sorted that out then it’s been just fine.
Jessica Altieri: [00:01:08] I like that answer. That makes sense. Nothing that a great bottle of wine can’t solve and warm you up with.
Alan Johnson: [00:01:15] I see you have a treat for us here. ( Napa Cellars)
Jessica Altieri: [00:01:16] We have a nice treat and we’re going to talk about that and I want to tell people about everything you have going on in your current role and how we got in touch here in Chicago. But first I want to start from the beginning and how you got to where you’re at today. So first tell me about where you’re from.
Alan Johnson: [00:01:32] That’s a complicated question you see because most times that means where is that accent from. So, when I tell them I’m from Chicago which is where I live now people don’t believe me, but I was born in Rhodesia which is now called Zimbabwe. And then I moved to South Africa I grew up there as a young adult. I left South Africa at the age of 19 and moved to Australia raised three kids in Australia and then left at the age of 29,30 travelled around the world went to the US with my job for Pepsi years working at Pizza Hut and went to the worldwide headquarters of Pizza Hut which believe it or not is in Wichita Kansas.
Alan Johnson: [00:02:20] Lovely place and quite a culture shock going from Sydney Australia to Wichita Kansas.
Jessica Altieri: [00:02:35] So where did you get to school though?
Alan Johnson: [00:02:39] In Australia.
Jessica Altieri: [00:02:41] What did you want to be?
Alan Johnson: [00:02:42] Well, you know this strange thing is I wanted to be a doctor and moved to Australia and then as it turned out had to miss a year because of the transition from South Africa to Australia and ended up enrolling in business school and then four years later with a business degree really straight but it was a great decision. So, I ended up in Wichita, Kansas and then I was working in strategic planning for Pizza Hut worldwide and I was sent to eastern Europe to open Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell. I lived in Warsaw Poland for a couple of years.
Jessica Altieri: [00:03:28] So you know a little polish…
Alan Johnson: [00:03:32] Yes….so we have that in common and a love for wine and food.
Jessica Altieri: [00:03:44] I can’t even imagine the food over there. So how long were you in Poland?
Alan Johnson: [00:03:48] About a year and a half a year and then moved back to Australia thinking OK that’s it I’m going to put down roots going to live back in Australia and quite literally three months later I found myself in Boston where I was the chief operating officer for a movie theater company building these big megaplexes. I did that for whatever it was three four years.
Jessica Altieri: [00:04:12] Wait…. the type of megaplexes like we could drink and eat in?
Alan Johnson: [00:04:16] We opened the very first stadium megaplex on the East Coast of the US with valet parking,and ATM’s that distributed movie tickets not cash, VIP seating and even specialty food, not just popcorn and Pepsi.
Alan Johnson: [00:04:42] And then Michael Eisner visited one of our theaters and liked what we were doing.
Jessica Altieri: [00:04:52] How was that first conversation with him?
Alan Johnson: [00:04:53] Very nerve-wracking because he’s such a legend and he’s such a visionary and he’s see things so different. Anyway, he wanted me to go and work for a small division that kind of focused on restaurants and regional based entertainment.
[00:05:17] And I packed my bags, left Boston into L.A. and spent five or so years working in wonderful businesses like ESPN Zone which was a restaurant-based sports restaurant and club Disney and Disney Quest, opened Disney Quest here in Chicago on Ohio and Rush. And worked in the theme park part of Disney in the days when the Internet bubble burst in year 2000 if you remember all the drama and was asked by then the chairman of the Internet group to go help figure out how to write the Internet business because they were losing a lot of money. And spent a lot of time building what back then was the equivalent of Orbitz and Travelocity and Expedia. They hadn’t been thought of. And we built a complex travel site that you could plan your Disney vacations and you know book your hotel your rental car, your airfare and buy your tickets to the theme park. And then I had an epiphany at the end of that which was sort of you know I need to start working for me rather than these big you know companies like the Pepsi’s and the Disney’s. And so eventually I got together with an ex-Pepsi friend of mine that I had known for 25 years who purchased a small company and that’s how you and I had our paths cross. BevMo was a small chain in California, the equivalent of what you have here with Binnys. And we had 50 stores only in California a few in Arizona.
Alan Johnson: [00:07:30] We took the company from 50 to about 165.
Jessica Altieri: [00:07:45] Was it difficult going from somewhere like Disney to BevMo?
Alan Johnson: [00:07:48] It was, not for any reason other than I’ve been in the “eatertainment” business for 30 years.
Alan Johnson: [00:08:11] So the transition was difficult in that I was so used to sort of a huge organization and BevMo in those days was relatively small and was a private company, so you could you could quite literally sit there and make have a conversation on Monday morning and decide what to do on Monday afternoon and launch it on Tuesday morning. And so, you had to move a lot quicker. But I quickly fell in love with the people, fell in love with the industry. I mean our industry really attracts people with a deep passion for the love of the grapes and the story behind the passion behind who makes the product. And so that was you know a wonderful introduction to a business in California which brings us to Napa which is the mecca for you know for the U.S. It doesn’t get any better. I lived maybe half an hour, 40 minutes from Napa.
Jessica Altieri: [00:09:18] How wonderful and you mentioned you had seen me judge? I’ve been doing professional wine judging for seven years. I didn’t know that at the time and I just knew that you had worked with one of my dear friends, Wilfred Wong. Who is a legend in the wine judging industry and now with Wine.com. And that’s just funny how everything kind of intertwined.
Alan Johnson: [00:09:36] There you go. I mean when I first joined of course you know to be honest, I didn’t know a lot about wine. I’m not quite sure.
[00:09:47] And Wilfred you know he’s a tremendous teacher and he teaches in a way that is non-technical. And so, you know I just sit down with Wilfred and his tasting room and he said, “Alan we need to broaden your palate.”
[00:10:09] And we would sit there and maybe taste 20-30 wines in one flight. And he loves to teach them, and he is such, I think the right term legend. And Wilford will never ever forget what wine you like and one day you’ll be just sitting there all sudden Wilford will put a glass in front of you say, “I know that you will love this”. He just has this knack of remembering that one thing that you once said to him. And I mean he will bring a different bottle to someone else and you know what I also liked with Wilfred is for me the romance of wine with food and then great conversation. It doesn’t get any better than that; you need all three.
Jessica Altieri: [00:10:57] I agree. That’s my slogan; “Wine is just a conversation waiting to happen” and I completely agree with Wilfred too. The other point is I don’t know if you ever notice he takes such meticulous notes about every single wine that he tastes and judges.
Alan Johnson: [00:11:18] And we also had in common, photography. So yeah, I mean the whole food, the wine, the photography and you know Wilfred also I think because he’s had to deal with many maybe built in assumptions that people have about you know how an Asian guy can know that much about wine. Let me tell you, walk through the streets of Europe with Wilfred and you’ll see what a legend he is and every ounce of that hard work. So, I was blessed for five or six years Wilford shared an office not far from me and particularly on those days where I knew he was tasting something special.
Jessica Altieri: [00:12:20] Tell me what led you to your next destination then on your path. It sounds like you’re happy there.
Alan Johnson: [00:12:28] Yes happy wonderful team great brand. The number one player in California. And then just wanted something different to do. Got an opportunity to do what I thought was retire and then I quickly figured out you know what retirement’s not in me now. So, for the last couple of years I’ve been in the frog kissing business. You know and hoping that you pretty much like what happened with BevMo and along came after about a year and a half this wonderful brand that I’d heard of, but I didn’t know a lot about Potbelly and a recruiter called me and said hey you know is that something that you’d be interested in. And to be honest I don’t know anything about it, but I’d love to find out.
Jessica Altieri: [00:13:23] Had you gone to Potbelly before enjoying their sandwiches?
Alan Johnson: [00:13:27] No. You know what. I think I did. And if I did it was that one of the airports that I had no sort of specific recollection of ever being at a Potbelly. Anyway, I spoke to a number of my friends who know Chicago very very well. And soon as you say Potbelly, they say, “I love Potbelly”.
Jessica Altieri: [00:13:47] Can you tell the story of how it originated in case people don’t now. It’s a great story.
Enjoy the rest of the podcast and the story of Potbelly from Alan. And subscribe to my Wine Conversations podcast here: http://www.revolverpodcasts.com/shows/wine-conversations-with-jessica-altieri/