Hunter Pond wants you to conduct a science experiment. “Go to Subway or Potbelly and pull a piece of meat out of your sandwich and hold it up to the light,” he says. “What you see isn’t appealing or good.” And although his disgust might make you laugh as he discusses “nasty, wet, cold, dirty deli meat that’s filled with nitrates”—don’t. Pond is serious about sandwiches, and it was this passion that helped birth a multimillion-dollar restaurant concept called East Hampton Sandwich Co.
Before Pond was named to Forbes’ 2015 “30 Under 30” list or realized he was interested in the hospitality business, the Highland Park High School graduate knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. “My dad has had his own business my whole life,” Pond says. “I saw how freeing that could be and how independent of a life he was able to lead because of it.”
Pond studied business and entrepreneurship at Texas Tech. He decided to continue his education at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio after facing a recession economy as a postgraduate. He hated it the moment he started. “I wasn’t able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I’d be sitting in my cube, supposed to be studying, and researching restaurant concepts.”
Jumping into the restaurant industry seemed like a more natural path for Pond, who says he not only appreciates a perfectly plated meal but also the social and cultural aspects of dining out. After a semester of researching business practices behind successful concepts like Chipotle and Shake Shack, Pond dropped out of law school. He packed a U-Haul and moved back to Dallas, where he explained to his family and friends that he had a plan. Then, he threw himself into learning everything he could.
A family friend introduced Pond to Matt Spillers and Chad Sepulveda, founders of the Spillers Group that had produced Eno’s Pizza Tavern and Oddfellows, among other concepts. He began to work under their guidance while also reading myriad books about the business. “I saw that there was a giant void between restaurants like Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, and Potbelly and the Carnitas Sandwich at R+D Kitchen,” Pond says. “I knew if I could fill that void, my restaurant would have a big impact.”
That Carnitas Sandwich was the entire inspiration for East Hampton. “It’s so beautiful,” says the self-proclaimed sandwich nerd. “The layers and color contrast between the ingredients are amazing—it’s food porn, it’s sandwich art.” Pond felt there wasn’t a restaurant in Dallas where a consumer could choose from an array of quality sandwiches, and the idea for East Hampton was born.
With only his dog, Fletcher, as a companion, Pond, then 24, holed up in his bedroom and began to write a business plan. He wanted the still-unnamed restaurant to offer counter service like other sandwich chains while still being a full-service restaurant where diners could sit down to enjoy a glass of wine. Three months later, he was ready to court investors.
At first it was difficult to get them interested. “I was young and had relatively no experience running a restaurant,” Pond admits. “It didn’t matter how good the business plan was; investors needed to meet with me and quiz me and make sure I had the personality and guts to do this.” Within eight months he raised the $450,000 he needed to get East Hampton off the ground.
During the fundraising process, Pond met Will Stroud, his future business partner whose background in real estate proved to be helpful in choosing Snider Plaza as the flagship location. The startup restaurant was competing with national chain Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop for the space formerly occupied by Jiang’s, an Asian cuisine restaurant. But the landlords opted to take a risk on the small upstart, and East Hampton began serving on Sept. 11, 2012. In its first year, the fledgling company sold 116,000 sandwiches.
Its success has stemmed from doing exactly what other sandwich shops don’t, Pond believes. “They focus on the bread by shipping in par-baked bread and throwing it in the oven,” he says. “What isn’t different is what they put between the bread: wet, nasty deli meat; shredded romaine; wilted tomatoes; and maybe some signature sauce.” Pond’s model, on the other hand, focuses on quality ingredients like house-brined-and-roasted turkey and chicken. The company outsources its bread needs to a local bakery.
Within two years, the East Hampton team had achieved the first phase of their business model, opening three locations in Snider Plaza, Shops at Legacy in Plano, and Fort Worth. Phase two is to make it to 10 restaurants within the next two years, and to continue to grow the active catering side of the business.
In 2014, East Hampton did $2.75 million worth of sandwich revenue. Not too shabby for a law school dropout.