Protein Bar

Consumer interest in health food fuels growth plans for Chicago concept

Protein Bar
SEGMENT: quick service
LEADERSHIP: Matt Matros, founder and chief executive; Mike Ganino, director of operations
METHOD OF GROWTH: private investors
NOTABLE COMPETITORS: health-focused concepts like The Pump or Energy Kitchen, "but really anyone who serves lunch," Matros said

Matt Matros, founder and chief executive of two-unit Protein Bar in Chicago, oversees a health-focused concept that does 700 covers a day in 1,240 square feet of space, resulting in lines out to the sidewalk adjacent to Willis Tower. But he’s not taking that success for granted.

“We’ll see; I could be bankrupt in a year. Who knows?” Matros said. “We had our best day ever last May 4, and I told my employees and investors, ‘Nobody could show up tomorrow,’ so you can’t get complacent.”

Fat chance Matros could be called complacent. The former Kraft Foods sales rep liquidated his life savings and started Protein Bar in May 2009 with government small-business loans and the high-protein recipes that helped him lose 50 pounds in 2001 at age 22. The concept’s second location opened in early June in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, and there are two more units in the pipeline.

Helping health-oriented concepts such as Protein Bar is consumers’ growing interest in eating healthfully. According to a 2010 survey by the National Restaurant Association, nearly three-quarters of adults claim they are trying to eat more healthfully when they dine out than they did two years ago. A majority of restaurant operators surveyed confirmed that trend, noting that customers are ordering more healthful items than they did two years ago.

Protein Bar started by selling only protein shakes and smoothies, but really took off in January 2010 when it added food like Bar-ritos, wraps, salads and breakfast bowls built on granola and quinoa.

“I learned pretty early on that people only leave their office once a day, to get lunch,” Matros said. “So unless you’re selling lunch, you’re not going to make it. We were doing OK, but we weren’t thriving.”

The average check at Protein Bar is $7.70, but it is “kind of [misleading] because half the people get just a smoothie or bowl of oatmeal in the morning,” he said.

After expanding into the lunch daypart by necessity, Protein Bar now racks up 60 percent of sales in the early afternoon, with breakfast accounting for another 20 percent and evening business from late-working lawyers and investment bankers making up the rest.

“The beauty of this concept is that it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Matros said. “A sit-down restaurant sees their best customers maybe three times a year; we see our best customers three times a day.”

Last summer several of those customers and nearby landlords approached Matros about investing in Protein Bar’s expansion. He raised $2 million that way and signed leases for three more Chicago locations, and he is scouting future markets for expansion by the end of 2012.

His vision for expansion is what he calls “10 and 10 and 10,” or 10 company-owned Protein Bar locations in the 10 best markets in 10 years.

“It’s mostly urban downtowns, but that’s just because that’s what I know, and because our customers thus far are urban professionals,” Matros said. 

He doesn’t spend any money on marketing, instead relying on positive word of mouth from satisfied customers, so money normally earmarked for advertising goes right back into the training budget. Last year he brought on as director of operations Mike Ganino, who had worked at Chicago chains Potbelly Sandwich Works, Wow Bao and HomeMade Pizza Co.

Matros has gone through growing pains as a first-time restaurateur — the original location has been remodeled four times, and people have told him, “I can’t believe you’re doing $7,000 a day in this [expletive] kitchen.” But his view that restaurants like Protein Bar are “a service business, not a food business” has helped him maintain a following that makes the restaurant more than a niche concept, despite having all health-focused food.

“We manage 18 to 20 different vendors, which a lot of people tell me is crazy, but that’s kind of the magic,” Matros said. “We have a vendor that sells us nothing but açai. If we want to have the menu items we want to have, that’s what we need to do. That’s OK, because that’s what makes us different.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [3].