How working at McDonald’s helped CEO find health food success

CHICAGO — Samir Wagle, a fit and energetic 45-year-old, ambled into a downtown Chicago Protein Bar recently and gave fist bumps to some of his employees.

Once a McDonald’s fry cook (more on that later), Wagle was named Protein Bar’s new CEO in December, succeeding company founder Matt Matros.

Until last year, Wagle worked as chief operating officer for California-based Andre Boudin Bakeries — known for its clam chowder in bread bowls — and previously as an executive for Chipotle and McDonald’s. Now Wagle is leading a company with a mission statement near and dear to his heart: To change how people eat on the go.

Protein Bar has grown up since it first opened as a smoothie bar in downtown Chicago in 2009. Now, after an infusion of private equity money in 2013, there are 20 locations, including four in Colorado and three in Washington, D.C., with plans to add units at a rate of 20 percent per year, Wagle said.

The menu options now include an array of salads, bowls and “Bar-ritos,” like the Korean BiBi-Q and the El Verde flavor styles that recently rolled out. But as Protein Bar has evolved, so has competition among fast casual restaurants — a point keenly understood by Wagle, who helped grow Chipotle’s business in the eastern Great Lakes region in 2006.

“Back then, we didn’t call it fast casual,” Wagle said. “It was just this idea we could bring better quality food and make it far more affordable.”

A “proud alum” of McDonald’s, Wagle also worked at a McDonald’s joint venture in India in the early 2000s — an experience that he says helped prepare him for his current role. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Wagle recently moved to the Chicago area with his wife, Smriti, and their 5-year-old son.

Wagle sat down with the Chicago Tribune in Protein Bar’s “idea greenhouse,” a downtown Chicago restaurant where concepts are tested — like serving kombucha on tap. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: How does Protein Bar compare to your past places of employment such as Boudin, Chipotle and McDonald’s?

A: I think we are just a little more in front of the curve nutritionally. What we say internally is every calorie you get from us is hardworking. It does something for you. And that puts us a little ahead of the competition.

Q: What are your personal dietary preferences?

A: I tend to be pretty high protein. I still do eat some carbs. I do tend to watch calories. For me, it’s more about allocation. I want the calories I need to be on the things I like. I don’t miss bread, so I don’t eat a lot of bread.

Q: That must have been a struggle at Boudin, right?

A: That was a little bit of a challenge. In the early years, you don’t necessarily think as much about the purpose, the mission, the goals. As I got older, it became more and more important to me, quite candidly, that the brand I was going to represent and be the face of would be something that reflected my belief system. And that is truthfully why I came to Protein Bar.

Q: I passed by a Lyfe Kitchen on the way here. How is Protein Bar facing that heightened competition within the fast casual segment?

A: I don’t necessarily worry about Lyfe Kitchen. I think more about how can we be innovative to help our guests reach their personal goals. And culturally, within the entire organization, that’s kind of how we operate. Our mission statement is to change how people eat on the go. Because we believe we can offer them things that make their lives better.

Q: How important is it to be able to also pull in those customers who might not be as adventurous?

A: The new person who’s not as adventurous or who comes here for the first time, I think it’s important for us to have items that are familiar but they still try it and go, “The way you guys do it is unique and special.” And there might be an ingredient they don’t know. They may not know what quinoa is. But we tell them, look, quinoa is high in protein. Think of it as a grain replacement for rice. It’s also gluten-free, if you’re sensitive to that. … So try it.

And then they start telling us, what else do you have? Because they believe in us. What we want to do is make sure our first-time guests have something they can try, but also as they continue their journey with us, we have enough of where they’re going.

Q: How important is quinoa to the Protein Bar brand?

A: Quinoa is a great example of our evolution. We used to serve just quinoa. We’ve now evolved to a quinoa blend. So it has amaranth, flaxseed, and red and gold quinoa. It’s a great example of us saying what is a more nutritionally impactful version of it. It’s no longer plain quinoa. It just keeps getting better.

Q: What’s your biggest mistake as a restaurant executive?

A: Not moving fast enough when I knew the answer. I always seem to look back and think, really, could we not have moved faster on that?

Q: What’s an example of that?

A: Probably personnel decisions. Those are the ones I tend to rue the most. You tend to know (whether someone is going to work out or not).

Q: In terms of the mission statement aligning with your own personal beliefs, how does this compare to McDonald’s?

A: Given where I was at with my career, I don’t know if there could have been a better place for me to learn about the restaurant industry than McDonald’s. Truthfully. That may not be a popular opinion but I unequivocally believe it. The way their systems run are brilliant. We were doing things in 1993 that I’m just now watching some restaurants adopt now.

Q: What’s an example of that?

A: Some of the scheduling and computer tools they have. We were using proprietary versions that they had had someone build. We had that level of technology. They just believed in it.

For example, for my training, I was working in suburban Chicago. And they said to me, Samir, if you want to succeed, you’ve got to prove that you have ketchup in your veins. And I remember going, I have no idea what that means.

They paid for me to move to Portland, Ore., and to be a general manager. I worked my way up, literally from fry cook, all the way up to general manager. I had just gotten my MBA. And by the way, I knew I was brilliant. I’m going to go be a fry cook? It was a little bit of a step down in pay. And I’m going to tell you, honestly, being a general manager of a restaurant, is arguably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. And the fact that I was one, and they made me do that, has made me so much more successful as an executive.

I’ll be forever grateful to them for that.

Q: What’s your guilty food indulgence?

A: Chocolate chip cookies. I have a sweet tooth. I talk about calorie allocation. I’ll skip the bread. But after dinner, if there are chocolate chip cookies in the house, that’s bad news for me — and the chocolate chip cookies.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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