How Protein Bar Built a Good-For-You Movement of Superfans

Many restaurant concepts are bred from an idea that goes beyond wanting to start a business just to make money. Those in the industry know that starting a restaurant takes a lot of passion and dedication, and the money doesn’t come right away — in fact, most times, it takes a while to start making a profit. So without a great cause, goal or passion to hold onto, a restaurant can be doomed from the start.

Chicago-based Protein Bar, a 20-unit fast casual concept offering up good-for-you food, was born on a cause that hits home for its founder, Matt Matros. Growing up as an overweight kid, Matros had heard every fat joke in the book. To take control of a healthier lifestyle, he turned to a high-protein diet and exercise, which returned noticeable results — he lost nearly 60 lbs in just 7 months. He continued on the path of drinking protein shakes and the like.

The Big Cheese

A few years later, Matros accepted a position at Kraft Foods, working as the Brand Manager of Kraft cheese. “I realized there was no place in Chicago serving the kind of food I wanted to eat,” he says. That’s to say, there weren't enough restaurants selling authentically healthy foods.

His entrepreneurial side then kicked into high gear, and Matros pooled his life savings, took out some SBA loans and opened the first Protein Bar location, across from Sears Tower, in May 2009. Today, the chain has expanded beyond Chicago, with locations in Washington, D.C. and Denver, CO, totaling 20 units. (Though similar, the menu does slightly vary by location.)

On the Menu

Southwest Salad at Protein Bar  | Yelp, Chris G.

Southwest Salad at Protein Bar | Yelp, Chris G.

Protein Bar serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also houses snacks and offers catering. The menu includes signature blended drinks (like the Avo-Matcha with avocado, matcha green tea, raw honey, almond milk and vanilla protein), cold-pressed juices, quinoa bowls, chilis and soup, protein-packed “bar-ritos” (a healthy take on a burrito, which replaces white rice with quinoa and comes in a flaxseed wrap), salads and breakfast items. 

Pancake in a Bowl with raspberries + almond milk  | Yelp, Dawn P.

Pancake in a Bowl with raspberries + almond milk | Yelp, Dawn P.

The Pancake in a Bowl comes highly recommended for breakfast (organic steel-cut oats mixed with vanilla protein, choice of milk, organic agave nectar and house spice blend, topped with a sliced banana). Matros says Protein Bar gets 15% of its business before 11 a.m., making the breakfast day-part a strong one.

The fast casual also features seasonal specials, offering unique flavors for the changing season (Protein Bar uses local and organic produce when available). Retail items cater to in-betweeners who want to grab-and-go, and the brand’s catering arm is mostly used by local businesses.

Bonus: Nutrition facts are shown for each menu item, so you know exactly how much protein, calories, fat, carbs and fiber you’re consuming. You can check out a sample of Protein Bar’s menu here and see their ingredients list here.

The Art of the Pivot

“When we opened, we were more of a Jamba Juice competitor, selling protein shakes,” says Matros. Protein Bar ended up pivoting to a concept beyond just shakes, and now they do not sell 90% of what was on their initial menu.

Protein Bar on N. Clark St. in Chicago  | Yelp, Ben B.

Protein Bar on N. Clark St. in Chicago | Yelp, Ben B.

Their overall mission? “To change the way people eat on the go,” says Matros. The brand’s main focus these days is to expand to create a niche category for healthy food.

When Protein Bar was first founded, its biggest competitor was Jamba Juice. Now, Matros considers Whole Foods as its biggest competition, since they have been ramping up on their prepared foods. But when it comes to competition, Matros isn’t too worried — rather, he embraces it.

“I welcome all players in the healthy space because it means that’s how people are starting to think about it,” he says.

Customer Service Breeds Superfans (and Investors)

Protein Bar serves nearly 10K guests a day. And while most business owners claim that staff and customers are a business’s two biggest investments, Matros completely took that to a more literal level. When Protein Bar had only 10 units, about half the size it is now, the chain raised money from customers, becoming the brand's investors. Over the years, Protein Bar closed four rounds of public funding. And in late October 2013, Protein Bar closed on a private equity round with Catterton Partners.

In 2012, after coming to the realization that Protein Bar needed a more organized, sophisticated way of financing, Matt and his business partner began the process of “dating” private equity firms. They spoke to about 30, narrowed it down to four that they felt good about, and ended up with Catterton based on a few things, one of them being they were on the same page and understood the vision of Protein Bar. 

On the employee side of things, Matros says they focus a lot of attention on their internal employees. Not only does Protein Bar have a great culture, but the chain pays a bit more in wages compared to a lot of other chains. To prove that the culture is strong, Matros confesses that Protein Bar doesn’t focus too much on marketing, saying, “In my opinion, the best marketing is a great guest experience.”

Matros and the Protein Bar crew refer to its loyal customers as “superfans.” These customers come in 5-12 times per week, says Matros. And while dining out that frequently on a consistent basis definitely adds up financially, it’s easy to understand the consumer demand. After all, as a healthy eater, it’s really difficult to find good-for-you options at a reasonable price that are actually good for you. Many claims of “natural this” and “organic that” can be misleading and vague. 

For those who maintain a healthy lifestyle and are educated when it comes to ingredients, it’s satisfying — relieving, even — that Protein Bar has clearly done its research. Another trend pointing to its success is reliability and convenience. We can’t ignore societal habits of laziness when it comes to at-home food prep to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The option most people would choose is spending their money on a trusted source of convenience — no guesswork, no stocking up on expensive groceries, no wasting time preparing every meal.

At the end of the day, we all want something bigger to believe in, and setting goals for ourselves is one way of doing that. So is supporting a cause we can get behind. Matros has created a catalyst to help us do both.

Find a Protein Bar location near you here.