Rod Silva, founder of Muscle Maker Grill, says making America healthier requires diners increasing the number of healthy choices they make each day. And Muscle Maker Grill is helping them do just that.

In fact, it’s difficult to make an unhealthy choice at a Muscle Maker Grill restaurant. There are no fryers on the premises; the veggies are fresh, the rice is brown, the meat is lean, and the pasta is whole wheat.

“We take the time-tested food people love—like Italian pastas, Tex-Mex wraps, Asian entrées, salads, and burgers—and do healthy versions of them,” Silva says. “At Muscle Maker Grill, eating healthy doesn’t mean giving up your favorite foods. Every dish is prepared with both health and taste buds in mind.”

During his early 20s, Silva owned a smoothie store in Colonia, New Jersey, where he would bring in dishes he prepared for his own lunch. When customers began asking about these meals, he recognized a void in the marketplace for tasty, healthy options. He began cooking for regular customers and changed Muscle Maker Nutrition Center to Muscle Maker Grill.

Muscle Maker Grill

Founder Rod Silva

HQ: Colonia, New Jersey

Year Started: 1995

Annual Sales: $35 million

Total Units: 65

Franchise units: 64

“When I was starting out, I went to the food shows and asked suppliers for nutritional profiles,” Silva says. “They got mad. That just wasn’t done back then. That’s common now, but not then.”

Silva spent 12 years improving the first Muscle Maker Grill location, and began franchising in 2007. Since then, the concept has grown to 65 locations, mostly in New Jersey and New York. Silva says there are plans to grow by 25–35 locations a year for the next five years. “We started in New Jersey and grew to be in 10 states,” Silva says. “Our plan is to grow with good developers and good franchisees, continuing to expand throughout the East Coast and spread across the country. We have international interest, but we want to focus on the U.S. first.”

Silva says the prototype Muscle Maker Grill is 1,500–2,000 square feet at an inline shopping center location with heavy daytime population and high visibility. “We like competition,” he says. “We have several stores next to a Five Guys, for example, because we believe you can’t eat a Five Guys [burger] every day.”

While the brand is trying to build its dinner numbers—business at the average unit is 60 percent lunch sales and 40 percent dinner sales—some locations are testing a breakfast menu, too.

“Because we believe in fresh food, prices are a little high, which becomes a challenge,” Silva says. “Do people want to spend $5 or $6 for breakfast? Because we won’t sacrifice quality to get that price point down.”

Wraps are some of the best sellers at Muscle Maker Grill during the lunch daypart. The popular MMG Signature Wrap is made with grilled chicken breast, turkey bacon, reduced-fat Cheddar cheese, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and a zero-carb signature sauce.

Though Muscle Maker Grill offers healthy fare, it isn’t a vegetarian or vegan concept. However, those who do adhere to those diets, as well as gluten-free and low-carb diets, can get enough to eat at Muscle Maker Grill. With the a la carte, or “Extras,” menu, Muscle Maker Grill guests can order a simple bowl of steamed broccoli; grilled tilapia, chicken breast, or steak; plain brown rice; or a bowl of spinach.

“We have the a la carte menu for people who are really strict about their diet,” Silva says. “They can pick and choose exactly what they want. We can accommodate any diet.”

To accommodate the slow economy, as well as calorie counters, Muscle Maker Grill introduced the Lighter Side Menu, which offers five meal choices under 400 calories for $5.99 each. Options include Penne Romano, made with chicken breast in reduced-fat vodka sauce with Parmesan cheese over whole-wheat penne pasta. Another Lighter Side option is the Hollywood Salad, made with grilled chicken breast, turkey bacon, reduced-fat Cheddar cheese, tomatoes, onions, and zero-carb sauce over a bed of Romaine lettuce.

The zero-carb signature sauce finds its way onto many Muscle Maker Grill offerings, from sandwiches and wraps to an entrée called the Arizona, which is grilled chicken breast and turkey bacon over brown rice with tomatoes, scallions, and the signature sauce.

“Our signature sauce has a Cajun taste,” Silva says. “It’s unbelievable. People love it.”

The Lighter Side menu offers significant savings to customers who might otherwise spend $7.99 for a wrap or sandwich and $9.99 for other entrées. Silva says the more affordable choices “relieve the burden” for customers who want to visit a Muscle Maker Grill frequently. The fast casual rounds out its menu with All-Natural Fruit Smoothies and Big Protein Shakes.

For those who don’t want to physically visit, Muscle Maker Grill offers delivery and catering. Silva says delivery has grown to account for 20–25 percent of sales at some locations, with catering at about 10 percent. “We do a lot of business lunches,” he says. “People love the catering packs we put together.”

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Emerging Concepts, Growth, Story, Muscle Maker Grill