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Protein Bar founder wins first Tyree award

James Tyree

James Tyree

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Updated: June 6, 2012 2:27AM

After Matt Matros’ father died of a heart attack when Matros was 11, he took to heart the impact that diet, smoking and stress have on one’s health. And when Matros realized at age 22 that he was on the same unhealthy path, he transformed himself through exercise and a protein-rich diet from a self-described “fat kid” into a fit, healthy adult, losing 50 pounds in one summer.

Matros, 33, didn’t stop there. The Southern California native spent $250,000 — his life savings — and borrowed from the federal Small Business Administration to start the Protein Bar eatery in May 2009 at Franklin and Adams in downtown Chicago.

His goal at first was to show others how nutrition-rich blended drinks and breakfast bowls could taste good.

Moving on to lunch, Matros turned Protein Bar into a full-fledged eatery featuring items such as a low-calorie, high-fiber flaxseed wrap and organic quinoa topped with vegan seasoned black beans and shredded cheddar cheese. Protein Bar now has five quick-serve eateries in Chicago.

The Protein Bar, with its calorie-detailed menu boards and ban on refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup as ingredients, attracted the attention of Deerfield resident Ken Leonard, who became the company’s first and largest investor.

Leonard, 48, a managing partner at Chicago leveraged-buyout financier Kayne Anderson and whose own father was an early advocate of the Pritikin Diet, has invested $500,000 in Protein Bar, and believes it has plenty more room to grow. The eatery has so far attracted 60 investors — all but two from Chicago — and raised $7.2 million in total.

Matros said Protein Bar could expand to a total of 20 stores by the end of 2013, and to as many as 35 stores in the greater Chicago area over time.

The company’s rapid growth, egalitarian work environment and civic and philanthropic generosity have earned Protein Bar the first James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership Award. The award includes $25,000 in cash and $25,000 in customized in-kind donations.

Bob Wislow, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. Equities Realty, who was a friend of Tyree, presented the award Tuesday at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

“We’re super-excited,” Matros said when he received the award Tuesday, drawing a laugh by asking landlords to let him know if they had space so that he could open more of his eateries here.

The award was created by the chamber in partnership with Mesirow Financial, where Tyree was chairman and chief executive officer. Tyree, a former chairman of the chamber, was chairman of Sun-Times Media before he died in March 2011. He was a generous donor to charities and a member of dozens of corporate, civic and not-for-profit boards.

The idea for the award was to give a boost to a business that epitomized Mr. Tyree’s life and ideals.

More than 30 companies submitted applications.

Chamber executives focused on finding a high-growth company from the six-county region that had shown leadership, strong financial performance for three years, civic and charitable involvement and the ability to grow through innovation and expansion, said the chamber’s John Roberson, a former city aviation commissioner who also owned a Cold Stone Creamery ice-cream shop and managed the minority and women-owned business program for the Chicago Park District.

Roberson said he was impressed by Matros’ ability to learn about a complicated business so quickly, pitch in by doing everyday jobs such as bussing a table and changing lightbulbs, and his willingness to hire people smarter than him.

Leonard called Matros “one of the smartest, most creative, hard-working, passionate people I’ve ever met.”

Before starting Protein Bar, Matros spent three and a half years in brand management with Kraft Foods, was a consultant in Boston for an East Coast health-care chain and worked as a sports agent.

Besides the five Protein Bar sites in Chicago, two more are slated to open soon in the Washington, D.C., area, with plans for another 13. The company employs 120 people, up from 12 at its start, and had $3.2 million in 2011 revenue, up from $298,000 in its first year of operation.

Protein Bar leaders and employees are active in and give regular contributions to Common Threads, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that teaches low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals, and Imerman Angels, which helps people with cancer.

The three runners-up for the award are Chicago-based mobile, social media and email marketing firm Signal; Triune Health Care Group of Oak Brook, a family-run business that provides rehabilitation services and wellness programs for employers, and YJT Solutions, a Chicago IT and security solutions provider for the finance and trading industry.

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