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First look: Protein Bar opens May 6 at One Union Station

It's been fourteen years since Matt Matros graduated from college, and he still has the "fat kid" graduation photo that encouraged him to kick the junk food to the curb. "I was heavy -- 210 pounds heavy -- when I graduated from college, and I remember looking at my graduation photo and being embarrassed by what I saw; I didn't look like a person who was healthy," admits Matros, the founder of Protein Bar, a contemporary, fast-casual cafe/restaurant that opens at 11 a.m. next Tuesday at One Union Station.

See also: First look: Thirsty Lion opens April 29 near Denver Union Station

The photo of Matros in his black gown in no way resembles the lighter -- fifty pounds lighter -- Matros now, who, after looking at that photo one too many times, adopted a high-protein diet, a diet that encouraged him to open his first Protein Bar in 2009 in the heart of Chicago's financial district. "I was living in Chicago and selling cheese products at the time for Kraft, and the more I tried to go out to eat, the more I realized that there wasn't anywhere that served the food that I wanted to eat, so I took my life savings, got a few SBA loans and opened my first location in Chicago right by the Sears Tower," he says.

And the lines were immediate -- and monumental. "We started developing regulars and really long lines -- people loved the concept -- and then customers who wanted to get involved started approaching me about ways they could invest," remembers Matros, who now has 65 investors, all of whom have a stake in a company that has since grown to sixteen stores, including one in Boulder. By the end of this year, Matros will have expanded his healthy food empire to 22 stores, three of which will be Denver-based. Following on the heels of the One Union Station store, he'll open a Protein Bar in June at 1390 South Colorado Boulevard, and, he says, another one somewhere along the 16th Street Mall.

And Denver, he says, is the ideal market for future growth. "People who live here are educated professionals, they have an affinity for fitness and an active outdoor lifestyle, and Denver is the fittest city in the country," and those factors, he adds, "all contributed to my wanting to open in Denver. It just made sense in every way."

The concept, he explains, is rooted in "ingredients that have a purpose" -- and those ingredients, he says, define the transparency of Protein Bar, which trumpets a menu of breakfast bowls; "bar-ritos," the ingredients of which are wrapped in high-protein, high-fiber tortillas made with flax powder; salads; quinoa bowls; raw juices; shakes swirled with either whey, soy or egg protein, almond, soy or milk and an energy-inflating booster; and chili, including a mind-altering chicken chili that benefits from quinoa rather than rice and arrives crowned with cheddar and a generous plop of Greek yogurt.

"A lot of things that taste great are low in calories," insists Matros. "We use a ton of spices and fresh herbs in our cooking, and those spices and herbs, which are really low in calories, make food taste really good," he says. He points out, too, that even if you ate the three most highly caloric dishes on the Protein Bar menu, the total amount of those calories would still be fewer than a burrito bomb from Chipotle. "Our concept is all about fresh and flavorful food that's made today and low in calories, and it's me making what I like to eat; we do healthy food healthier, and we give our guests a palette of choices when it comes to proteins, because we believe in giving people options when they're choosing what's best for their body," he explains.

In addition to the core menu, Matros also rolls out seasonal dishes eight-to-ten times a year. The current seasonal dish is a Baja salad with chicken, avocado slices, blue-corn tortilla chips, salsa, a blend of six lettuces and housemade cilantro-lime dressing.

On Tuesday, when Protein Bar opens, the first 100 people in line will receive a $100 gift card to use on future purchases (talk about an incentive to rise and shine!), and there will also be a DJ and additional schwag. Following that, regular hours will be from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

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