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Amy Sweet, the senior catering manager of Protein Bar & Kitchen, understands that our relationship to food can be complicated. Sweet earned her college degree in dance, as well as her yoga teacher certification. “It was hard for dancers—we were taught not to eat,” Sweet recalled. “That’s such an unhealthy way to learn about something so beautiful,” she added.

After spending several years working in PR and marketing, Sweet vaulted to the top of catering sales at Protein Bar & Kitchen, a healthy fast casual restaurant company based in Chicago. Founded in 2009 by Matt Matros, Protein Bar has ten locations across Illinois, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., with more restaurants on the way.

The atmosphere at Protein Bar reflects Sweet’s newfound love of all things delicious, nutritious, and protein-packed—which just so happens to be the chain’s motto. “Everything has now seemed to line up perfectly with my lifestyle choices,” she said of her work. “I’m around like-minded people who really care about what they put in their bodies.”

As clean-eating diets become more popular, grain bowls and smoothies need something special in order to stand out. “We take everything to the next level,” Sweet promised. For example, Protein Bar uses ghee, or clarified butter, which is simmered until water and solids, like lactose and casein, separate. According to Bon Appétit, ghee is safe to consume for those who are allergic to dairy protein. It’s also high in short-chained fatty acids, which are good for gut health. The Protein Bar team uses ghee because it “helps you stay fuller longer,” explained Sweet.

“There are new discoveries and trends in the health world, and we want to be the ones staying ahead of our competitors,” Sweet said of Protein Bar & Kitchen’s changing menu. Soon, they hope to add riced cauliflower as an option for their “grain” bowls, so grain-free dieters can enjoy the popular menu item, too. But they’re not afraid to try out menu items with supplements, like collagen, either, which is why their beauty brew shake lists collagen from Vital Proteins as an ingredient. (According to Food & Wine, collagen may help boost energy and promote healthy skin, hair, and nails.)

There are new discoveries and trends in the health world, and we want to be the ones staying ahead of our competitors Click To Tweet

But the health-conscious market is only so big, and Sweet knows it. That’s why she hopes the professionals who already love Protein Bar & Kitchen will convince their friends to come along, too. “We’re looking for professionals who care,” she said of their ideal customer. “Hopefully they spread the word to other people who may feel health is not as important to them now, but it can be in the future.”

To please as many palates as possible, Protein Bar improvises with classic flavors. Their buffalo chicken combo, for example, is dressed with Frank’s RedHot sauce and crumbled blue cheese. The Mexicali is topped with sweet corn, beans, fresh salsa, and Cholula Hot Sauce. Natural meats and all-white chicken reduce calories, greek yogurt in the dressing provides healthy fat, and avocado adds potassium. The grain bowls at Protein Bar & Kitchen also use quinoa as a base instead of rice, pumping up the protein and vital nutrients in each dish.

“You’re burning energy, instead of storing it,” Sweet said of the restaurant’s signature combination of flavorful but healthy ingredients. “Our prices are a little higher, but you’re paying for that extra nutrition and protein going into your body.”

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When it comes to corporate catering, sides and sweets transformed under Amy Sweet’s direction. “We try to make our menu as versatile as possible,” she said. Every flavor combination is available in both bar-ritos (wraps) and gluten-free bowls—and special dieters receive special attention.

“As a catering manager, I cannot stand it when one person gets a full sandwich, a bag of chips, and fruit, but the gluten-free or vegan person only gets an apple,” said Sweet. “I don’t care to single someone out for their lifestyle choices.” That’s why Protein Bar & Kitchen offers both bowls and salads as boxed lunch options for gluten- and grain-free diets. All chips are vegan and gluten-free, too.

Before Sweet joined Protein Bar & Kitchen, the restaurant’s protein cookie desserts were the number one customer complaint. “We want to be healthy and remain on brand,” she said. “But if you’re going to cheat, cheat for the right reasons!”  Now, Sweet said, bite-sized brownies, rice crispy treats, and mini chocolate squares are a delicious and beloved treat at the end of each meal. “We’re not overfeeding with calories, but people are able to satisfy their sweet tooth,” Sweet said.

After only seven months at Protein Bar, Amy Sweet has—incredibly—seen changes in her own body. “I was making good choices,” she said of her lifestyle before coming to Protein Bar & Kitchen. Now, however, she eats two protein-packed meals on the job every day. The change in her diet was just enough to prompt a transformation. “When you start to see a result from months of putting something healthy into your body?” she said. “That’s really rewarding.”

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Written by:

Jacqueline Raposo

Jacqueline Raposo is a food writer and podcast producer based out of New York City. She has written features and columns for clients including Saveur magazine, Plate magazine, Tasting Table, Serious Eats, and The Village Voice, and produced audio stories for Heritage Radio Network and Live from Prince Street. When not reporting about or eating food, you can find her in Riverside Park with her dog, Mitra, working off the prosciutto.

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