How a Fast-Food Chain Plans to Bulk up on Quinoa, Smoothies

AR-310199982.jpg&maxw=368&q=100&cb=20131119093150If Matt Matros has his way, Protein Bar’s quinoa bar-ritos and protein smoothies might just become the next burger and milkshake.

Spurred by a $22 million investment by private-equity firm Catterton Partners, Mr. Matros’ four-year-old healthy fast-casual restaurant chain is poised to go national and aims to hit 40 locations by the end of 2015. At least one analyst says Protein Bar eventually could have between 300 and 1,000 stores across the country.

Since opening his first restaurant across the street from Willis Tower in 2009, Mr. Matros, 34, has grown the chain to 12 locations throughout the Chicago area and Washington. The 400-person company projects nearly $20 million in sales this year.

By the first quarter of next year, Protein Bar will open two more Loop outlets, another in Streeterville and one in Lincoln Park. Protein Bars will also debut in Evanston and Schaumburg, as well as in Denver and Boulder, Colo.

The chain will hire about 15 corporate operations staff and about 25 to 40 employees per new store, according to Mr. Matros, founder and CEO.

“We were the starting pitcher (in the healthy fast-casual game), but it’s still only the second or third inning,” he says. “It’s a long game, and we’re not the only player who’s going to be successful, but we like to think we’re well-positioned.”

The need to expand quickly is paramount, agrees Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at food consultant Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “You cannot hide a successful concept like Protein Bar very long,” he says. “You’re going to see other burrito-inspired brands start to pull in its aspects.”

Two older competitors also have built their presences in Chicago and elsewhere. Freshii, a New York-based chain launched in 2005, boasts 13 area locations, while Palm Springs, Calif.-born Native Foods Cafe, a vegan fast-casual concept that has been around for two decades, has opened three Chicago outlets in recent years.

The urgency is heightened by the fact that growth in the overall market for fast-casual dining—which offers a higher-end selection and atmosphere than typical fast food—while still robust, is slowing down.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which helped create the category, opened its doors in 1993. Two decades later, fast-casual restaurants will generate about $35 billion in sales this year, according to Technomic estimates, up from $31 billion in 2012.

‘THE NEW STARBUCKS’

Protein Bar, Mr. Tristano says, differentiates itself by creating healthy food that tastes good. The chain charges premium prices—about $10 for a salad, for example—with ingredients such as antibiotic-free chicken and a salad mix that includes kale and spinach.

“They pull in an affluent corporate customer, as well as the millennials who feel that they’re entitled to it,” he says. “Protein Bar is the new Starbucks—it’s all about status.”

Those loyal customers, who often line up out the door of Protein Bar’s Loop locations between noon and 1 p.m., is one reason that Greenwich, Conn.-based Catterton invested. The firm previously has taken stakes in restaurants including Noodles & Co., which went public in June, and P.F. Chang’s, as well as health-focused brands such as Core Power Yoga and O.N.E. coconut water.

“Many folks have tried to do ‘better for you,’ but no one has combined that with the taste and crave-ability that Matt and his team have achieved,” Catterton partner Jon Owsley writes in an email. “We think that is a winning combination that will be tough to beat.”

As the company expands into Chicago’s neighborhoods, Protein Bar will have to move beyond its primary lunch business and prove that it can lure customers for dinner—long the Achilles’ heel of fast-casual chains.

Mr. Matros says Protein Bar’s stream of new menu items is up to the challenge.

“Our job is to stay in front of the consumer by continuing to introduce them to nutritionally relevant items,” he says. “We want to exist in the sweet spot between . . . foods you’ve never heard of” and ingredients that are ubiquitous.

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