Emerging Concepts | January 2016 | By Judy Kneiszel

Ones to Watch: Protein Bar

Founded as a post-workout destination, this Chicago-based fast casual serves up hearty yet healthy bowls, shakes, and more.

Despite having offerings like the Avo-Matcha protein drink and low-calorie whole-wheat flax tortilla–wrapped burritos, Protein Bar is in the business of guiding diners toward healthier foods, not prescribing a specific diet or health regimen, says CEO Samir Wagle.

“We’ve noticed over the last five to seven years, consumers are so much more aware of food,” Wagle says. “That’s a change. We recognize that people have very clear ideas of how they eat. We don’t try to preach to you. We ask how you want to eat and if we can help you.”

Wagle says Protein Bar got its start when founder Matt Matros lost “quite a bit of weight” but couldn’t find a healthy, convenient place to eat after his workouts. He took out his life savings and opened the first Protein Bar location in Chicago’s downtown Loop area, hoping other urban professionals were as hungry for healthy food in a fast-casual setting.

“He opened the first location as primarily a place to get a protein shake,” Wagle says. As the concept grew throughout Chicago and locations opened in Washington, D.C., and Denver, more food items were added to the menu.

In 2013, Wagle came on board as CEO and has worked to refine the menu and improve systems and operations. Matros, who sold a portion of the company to the private equity firm Catterton Partners, still serves on the board of directors.

Everything on the Protein Bar menu is high in protein and fiber, while low in saturated fat and refined sugar. Wagle says there are three main challenges to becoming a successful purveyor of healthy cuisine: The food must taste great, be satisfying, and fit the consumer’s lifestyle.

In addition to blended protein drinks and burritos, the menu offers bowls, salads, soups, and cold-pressed juices.

Protein Bar

CEO: Samir Wagle

HQ: Chicago

YEAR STARTED: 2009

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 20

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

www.theproteinbar.com

Protein Bar’s popular El Verde Bowl consists of all-natural chicken; roasted poblano peppers, onions, and corn; shredded Cheddar; house-made salsa and tomatillo sauce; hemp seeds; chipotle Greek yogurt; and an organic quinoa blend. It includes a hefty 38 grams of protein and only 400 calories. The same ingredients in a burrito bumps the protein to 53 grams and the calorie count to 570, according to the chain’s website.

While there are a variety of creative beef, chicken, vegetarian, and vegan bowls and burritos to choose from, guests can also pick and choose ingredients.

“Our food is totally customizable,” Wagle says. “Every person has their own journey. Vegan? We have that. Vegan but don’t like carrots? That’s OK, too.”

Every ingredient used by Protein Bar, and subsequently every menu item, is healthy, so a customer can’t choose badly. It’s simply a matter of what an individual’s health priorities are, Wagle says.

The burritos—called Bar-ritos at Protein Bar—range in price from about $7 to $9.50, which Wagle says is consistent with the fast-casual category. He emphasizes that it’s not about the price but the value.

Blended drinks at Protein Bar include the HI-5, made with kale, spinach, pineapple, and cilantro; the Fruit Loop’d, made with vanilla protein, almond milk, blueberries, and banana; and the Pier-nut Butter & Jelly, featuring vanilla protein, almond milk, organic peanut butter, blueberries, strawberries, and organic agave nectar.

For those who want a healthier alternative to the coffee shop, Protein Bar offers the Millennium Perk.

“It’s one of our most popular drinks because it tastes a lot like a Frappuccino but has only 120 calories,” Wagle says. “You get a lift from the caffeine, but since there is also protein powder in it, it allows you to keep going throughout the day. It sticks with you and gives you the energy to work or work out. We understand some people need coffee, but we’ll fill you up, too.”

Most Protein Bar locations are open for breakfast. In addition to blended drinks, the morning menu features egg-centric burritos like the Denver Bar-rito filled with scrambled eggs, broccoli, Cheddar cheese, fresh salsa, and onions. Other breakfast offerings include egg white scrambles and protein-infused oatmeal bowls such as the “One El of an Oatmeal,” which is organic steel-cut oats mixed with chocolate protein, milk, agave nectar, and house spice blend, then topped with banana.

One of six “boosts”—consisting of vitamins, herbs, or fiber—can be added to a drink or bowl. Guests can choose multivitamin, fat burner, fiber, energy, flu fighter, or hangover-blend boost.

Wagle says the concept will grow about 20 percent a year in the next decade, with stores opening in existing and new markets. He adds that carryout is a significant portion of Protein Bar business.

In late 2015, a catering program was also launched. “We see catering as a very strong growth vehicle for us,” he says.

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