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National Restaurant Association - Fast-casual focus: How Matt Matros set the (Protein) bar for success

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Fast-casual focus: How Matt Matros set the (Protein) bar for success

Matt Matros wants to change the way people eat on the go. He aims to build a niche of healthful limited-service restaurants, starting with his 20-unit fast casual chain.

When he opened his first Protein Bar restaurant in 2009, he emulated Jamba Juice by selling blended drinks and cold-pressed juice. Eventually, he decided to add food: quinoa bowls, protein “bar-ritos” made with quinoa instead of rice, and egg-white breakfast bowls.

“We were all about offering high-protein, healthful foods I would eat myself,” says Matros, who adopted a more healthful lifestyle after graduating from the University of Southern California. At the time, he was a sports agent who represented Major League Baseball players, living a “hard life.”

“My father died of a heart attack at 48, and I didn’t want that same future for myself. So I committed to a high-protein diet, started exercising and lost 60 pounds.”

A few years later, he moved to Chicago after getting an MBA from the University of Michigan. Finding few places that served the kind of food he wanted to eat, Matros decided to do something about it.

He took his life savings of about $200,000, a $350,000 loan and $75,000 in credit card debt to open the first Protein Bar across from Chicago’s Willis Tower. Today, after an injection of private-equity capital, he operates 20 restaurants in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Colorado, and plans to open more in several other markets.

Matros, the keynote speaker at the most recent NRA/Technomic Fast Casual 2015 Trends & Directions conference, offered three tips for growth:

  1. Go where the guests are. “Look at Rick Bayless. People love his food. If he opened a store in Timbuktu, they’d go there.” But Protein Bar is different. It appeals to people on the go looking for a quick breakfast, healthy snack or fast lunch. “That means going to business districts or offering catering. You have to go to locations where there’s a need for your concept at every minute of the day.”
  2. Use your store’s design as a draw. “When we were getting ready to open, my charge to our architects was to try and create the look of a sexy hotel bar,” he said. “When you think about the W hotel or the James [in Chicago], they both have a sophisticated and sexy feel. It’s important to make people feel good about themselves.”
  3. Keep your team members happy. If the employees are happy, there’ll be less turnover. “The best marketing is a great guest experience. Happy employees result in happy customers.”

With his $22 million in private-equity funding, Matros is ready to accelerate his company’s growth.

“We think we can really build a category for healthy fast food,” he said. “Our mission is to change the way people eat on the go. Things are good for Protein Bar.”


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