Say what you will about me, but you can never say I’m not ambitious. Sure, I graduated in three and a half years and I just accepted a two-year teaching job. But I am here to brag about a much greater accomplishment: While attending TCU, I went to Potbelly Sandwich Shop 135 times.
I know what most if not all of you are thinking: “What an amazing guy,” “he is truly an inspiration,” “he is literally the reason I get up in the morning,” etc. etc. Stop, please. You’re making me blush. It’s really too much praise for what is only probably the greatest thing to have happened at any sandwich shop ever.
Some haters out there may doubt that I actually went to Potbelly 135 times in the span of 7 semesters. But let me doubt your doubt by asking how many people would make up an accomplishment that errs on the side of humiliating? Wouldn’t I have come up with a better campfire story than eating my weight and wallet in roast beef sandwiches on wheat, original size, occasionally add bacon for 50 cents, and with an IBC root beer (I kept the bottle caps as a record of my visits) and a chocolate brownie cookie on the side? Don’t I have more dignity than that?
Don’t answer that last question. Instead, let me prove to you that I climbed to the top of Sandwich Mountain, and let me tell you what I saw when I got there.
A little history: In August 2009, I befriended a group of five girls and two guys. Some of my more romantic readers may assume that I am about to tell a story of how I fell in love with one of those five girls. While this is a love story, it is not a love story in the traditional sense of the genre; this is a love story between a young man and his sandwiches. It’s not sad if you don’t dwell on it too long.
As our friendship started to grow, we met frequently for lunch at the Potbelly just one minute from campus. And like all of my best/worst ideas, I thought I should set the record for eating at this fine sandwich establishment while I was at school. Once Ben Taylor gets an idea in his mind, be it stupid or stupider, there is not much that can stop him from chasing it like a dog does his tail.
The rest is history, but it felt like a fairytale. Some go to college for the grades, some go for the girls, some go to find themselves. Yawn. Some of us, those who know our true purpose in life, go to college to set really dumb goals and ace them like nobody’s business.
I became such a regular at Potbelly that the employees stopped asking for my sandwich order so that I could glide through the line and feel like a million bucks as I paid $7.92 each and every time, until inflation, when I paid $8.34 each and every time. Yes, I went to a sandwich joint enough times to watch prices rise. Get on my level.
When new employees arrived, I was the one who trained them. That is, until the manager told me she wasn’t kidding about me getting out of the kitchen. When I felt adventurous and decided to change my order, I would throw the employees’ days off so much that I would have to say, “Gotcha! Give me the usual” just to ensure they didn’t have a mental breakdown over a meatball sub.
On one beautiful day at our designated table (we are talking the level of commitment that the characters in How I Met Your Mother meet at their bar here) the manager asked me, “Why do you come here so often?”
I replied, “My friends and I come here once a week. I am trying to set the record for number of visits to Potbelly while at school. I keep the bottle cap from IBC root beer each time to keep track. We just really like your sandwiches and service.”
This middle-aged goddess of deli was speechless. She couldn’t believe it. She was so amazed that I pressed on: “Do you think that if I framed all of the bottle caps you could put them on the wall with your other cool art and it could say that I’m the customer of the year(s)?”
I don’t know if it was out of honor or pity—let’s say honor—but she immediately agreed. We took a picture together (paparazzi were all over what they called the “coolest sandwich-related event since sliced bread”), and that was that. I had even more motivation to complete my very legitimate dream.
After graduating at TCU this past December, I framed the bottle caps and invited the crew back to P-Bell (nickname we made up—never caught on) for a moment I had fantasized about as much as people fantasize about their wedding day. I put my finest button-up and slacks on, and went to meet my hot date for the evening—a toasted roast beef sandwich, the only one I’ve ever really committed to.
Eating my sandwich, my palms got sweaty as I thought about the moment of bestowal upon the shop. Would they want pictures? Would everyone in the restaurant gather around while I hung it on the wall? Would the manager cry as much as I would? Would the mayor be there? It was all too much.
After two hours, I worked up the courage to approach the sandwich girl of the evening. I cleared my throat, and began: “Is the manager here?
“The short one?” she asked.
“Umm,” I hesitated, “Shorter than me, yes. She’s in her forties, I believe.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. She doesn’t work here anymore.”
Time had stopped, and a silence filled the room, so much that you could hear a slice of ham hit the cold hard ground. I stepped back as if this girl had just kicked me in the chest. I explained to her, somewhat disheartened, what I had done over the years, how my plan all along was to give the frame to that manager as a thank you.
And do you know what happened after that, after all of this building up in my head for three and a half years?
She said, “That’s amazing. We’d love to put it up somewhere in here.”
I looked to the sandwich boy next to her, and his mouth was agape. He was stupefied. The guy behind me in line was chuckling. I handed her the frame, and the moment was over.
This is not a story about expectations becoming reality, nor is it a story about how some things aren’t worth doing.
Atop Sandwich Mountain, I found something I hadn’t expected to see: For all of our efforts in college and in life, making someone’s day might just top the list of journeys worth taking. Surrounded by the friends I had been with for my incredible years at TCU, I thought about the smiles they had brought me. I thought about the smile on the manager’s face when I explained the story to her two years ago, how shocked this current employee and her coworker were that someone cared so much about their little sandwich shop. I thought about the smiles all of Potbelly’s employees had brought me, remembering my order and sharing stories about our days with each other.
I don’t really think what I did meant all that much to them; they’ll stop working there just like that manager, they’ll forget what I did, someone will eventually ask for my order and not be surprised when I change it. I’ll be just another customer.
But I will always be the customer with 135 bottle caps (136 now) that tell stories about small smiles I shared with friends, and we’ll know that each and every one of them was worth it. Potbelly, IBCing you again. For now, thanks for the sandwiches, and thanks for making this kid’s dreams come true.