Protein Bar and the cult of quinoa
Protein Bar, a rapidly expanding health-food mini-chain, draws devoted regulars.
Wed Sep 21 2011
Illustration: Don Morris
Nobody leaves the line at Protein Bar. Aaron Anliker first experienced the phenomenon on a late summer day in 2009. He stood at the end of a queue that extended along a white counter, wrapped down a ramp, wound past two televisions and back toward the door of the small store across from Willis Tower. “I’m hearing customers say, ‘This line is ridiculous!’ ” recalls Anliker, who was on his maiden Protein Bar voyage. “And yet, nobody was leaving.”
Twenty minutes later, when he finally made it to the register, Anliker turned to Matt Matros, Protein Bar’s founder, and said, “You’re onto something here.” A few days later, during a week of late nights in his office, Anliker found himself returning to Protein Bar almost every night for a week and a half (meal of choice: the Ivy Bar-rito, chicken or tofu with organic quinoa, spinach basil pesto and shredded Parmesan cheese in a low-calorie, whole-wheat wrap). On one of those occasions, Anliker asked Matros whether he was looking for investors.
This summer (with support from many investors, including Anliker), Protein Bar expanded to River North (June) and the West Loop (August) and opened its fourth and largest location at Washington and Wells, three blocks from the original, on September 7. The proximity is intentional, explains Matros: “The Franklin store is chaotic, it’s loud, people don’t really know what’s going on in there.” He hopes that the Washington store will “ease the burden” of the Franklin lunch rush. “Some cannibalization is good in this instance.”
Cannibalization? Who are these unbudging people, and what brings them—some every day, some even twice a day—to a counter-service health-food restaurant?
Meet Ellen Pierce. Age: “I’m older than people think I am, and it’s because of all the quinoa I eat!” Meal of choice: Well, what meal are we talking about? Pierce starts almost every workday with Protein Bar (Pancake in a Bowl: organic steel-cut oats mixed with vanilla protein, milk, organic agave nectar and cinnamon, topped with fresh fruit). “Sometimes I go back for lunch” (quinoa chili with beef). “In the afternoon, when I’m having a chocolate craving, instead of getting something like a brownie, I’ll go get the Comiskey Cocoa,” a smoothie with chocolate protein, milk, cocoa malt, agave nectar and banana. She does it because she lost 21 pounds eating here. She does it for the Protein Bar people: “They have very high regard for each other, and they have very high regard for their customers.” But more than anything, she does it for the quinoa.
“Quinoa is the food of the future.” That’s not Matros talking; it’s Protein Bar regular Jonny Imerman, 36, a two-time cancer survivor who runs Imerman’s Angels, a nonprofit that pairs a cancer fighter with a cancer survivor of the same age, gender and cancer type for support. Imerman eats at Protein Bar four or five times a week. He describes the Spinach & Pesto Bowl: “It has, I think, 400 calories, three grams of sugar and, like, 36 grams of protein,” he says off the top of his head. “I swear I’m not Googling the website right now! I love it. Really, it’s, like, my favorite restaurant.” But to him, Protein Bar is more than just a restaurant: “It’s a beautiful thing to see people lining up at the door for healthy food,” Imerman says. “It’s a symbol of American culture moving in the right direction.” He holds most of his meetings at the River North location, introducing the quinoa-illiterate to its wonders and spawning devotees during each visit. “It’s more addictive than cigarettes,” Imerman says.
These people, they seem…extreme. But then there’s Ryan Poli—the former chef of Butter and Perennial, a guy who seems not the least bit fringe—and he eats at Protein Bar at least once a day. “One time I’m out getting a juice, and the lady in front of me ordered a buffalo chicken wrap [chicken or tofu with organic quinoa, blue cheese, salad mix and housemade vegan buffalo sauce in a whole-wheat wrap],” Poli recalls. “And I ordered one, just out of curiosity, and I fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe how good it was and how flavorful it was and that it only has 300 calories.” He returned every day for a week. And every weekday after that. “Chefs, we have the worst diets of anyone,” Poli says. “You eat standing up, like, out of a deli cup, you scarf it down in two minutes and you’re on your way again. And the rest of the day, I don’t really feel well.” Whereas after Protein Bar, Poli—who insists he’s “not a health nut”—feels energized. Or as he puts it, in typical Protein Bar parlance: “It’s just a romance I have with it.”
And so it comes to this, September 13, 2011, at 1:31pm. The line at the Franklin and Adams Protein Bar is to the door, but something unthinkable is happening: People are defecting left and right. The line is moving at an impossible speed. A smiley blond kid behind the counter is delivering a piece of upsetting news to each customer. “Unbelievable!” exclaims a man in a starched pale-purple button-down, raising his arms into the air in exasperation as he heads for the door. “They’re out of quinoa!”
Protein Bar’s newest location is 221 W Washington St (312-265-0532, proteinbarchicago.com).