After her favorite health food restaurant abruptly shut down, Erica St. John immediately decided to open her own.
“It was an extremely successful and healthy place, there were always lines out the door,” St. John recalls. “I ate there probably four times a week, and once it closed, I knew the demand was there and wanted to do it myself.”
Now, after just two years of owning Muscle Maker Grill in Glen Ellyn, St. John and her partner Lynsey Heathcote want to open another one in Elmhurst.
The first MMG opened in 1995 and branded itself as a restaurant with healthier version of mainstream-favorite dishes. Twenty years later, MMG businesses continue to pop up and grow.
Because it is a franchise, St. John and Heathcote have some flexibility on their menu, but always keep the “everyday food with healthier ingredients” idea in mind. With no hormones, chemicals or steroids, all dishes are fresh and made to order.
“The fact that we know literally every ingredient in every sauce in every recipe, that’s huge,” St. John explains. “There’s lots of people with allergies and dietary restrictions, and my entire staff has an excellent understanding of every item on the menu.”
From wraps to salads to pasta, MMG offers endless options and customization. Calories can be found on their menu in the restaurant, and all nutrition information for each dish is displayed on their online menu at www.musclemakergrill.com.
“Yes, we still have things on the menu that are 700 calories, but I’ll eat 700 of my calories to 700 McDonalds calories any day, because your body absorbs them so much differently,” St. John adds.
In fact, after just a year of owning MMG, St. John, Heathcote and one of their cooks lost a combination of 90 pounds just from eating clean. And success stories are not an uncommon theme within the MMG community.
“We have a group of guys who come in here and show us pictures and numbers of their progress, and it’s always so exciting to see that,” St. John says.
One of the most popular aspects of MMG is its meal plan system; between Sunday and Monday alone, St. John and Heathcote’s restaurant sends out more than 300 meal plans and consistently comprises of over half of their business. Even more impressive, out of all 88 MMG locations across the country, the Glen Ellyn location is always in the top three in meal plan sales.
Anyone who is interested in the meal plan just has to pick what they want to eat, how many meals they want and fill out a short form about their lifestyle and goals, and as soon as 36 hours later, the meals could be at their front door.
“It’s convenient for people so they don’t have to get lunch or dinner and comes in a microwaveable container,” St. John says. “We have people who get it for their kids so they don’t have to eat cafeteria food; some get it for their elderly in-laws, and now we have a large athlete population too.”
Because she knows how athletes are, St. John says the plans are extremely customizable. For example, she has several body builder customers who need six small meals each day, so the cooks will specifically measure out the weight of the meals for them. She knows the athletes double check their work, so they are always consistent.
While most of the meal plans go out in the beginning of the week, St. John says they are also flexible on deliveries.
“I’m not going to say no to someone who’s trying to eat healthy,” she adds. “We also deliver to a lot of gyms who order in bulk all day long.”
In Illinois, there are currently three locations: Glen Ellyn, St. Charles and Boystown in the city. Another one is opening in the South Loop downtown soon, and St. John and Heathcote are hoping to start working towards Elmhurst location soon.
“I think people are reluctant to walk in here because they don’t know the name,” St. John admits. “I know there’s competitors out there, like Protein Bar, and I know they have awesome shakes, but I think as far as quality of food, we really compete.”
What I Tried
I had the opportunity to try out some of the most popular items on the menu, and here’s what I thought:
Turkey Chili (300 calories) – This was my favorite dish I tried, and it didn’t taste anything like I thought it would. Unlike regular chili, there was no soupy or tomato base, it was mostly ground turkey and beans, but the low-fat cheese and sour cream added a great flavor that almost tasted like a Mexican dish. I could literally eat three pounds of this stuff.
Lean & Mean Cheeseburger Salad (550 calories) – Honestly, this didn’t sound appetizing to me at all; ground beef in a salad? Lynsey assured me that it was very popular though, and I’m glad I kept an open mind because it was delicious! The fat-free hickory BBQ dressing was unique and added a smoky flavor, but wasn’t too overpowering. This salad is the deliciousness of a burger but healthy-ness of a salad, so in my book, the best of both worlds.
Cajun Pasta and Penne (750 calories) – While this dish typically comes with the Cajun Chicken, we swapped it out for their steak, which again was an unexpectedly delightful combination. The red wine brown sauce had the perfect amount of spice and the tomato/scallion topping completed the zingy taste. Talk about a carb- and protein-loaded meal!
Satisfyingly healthy sides/starters: Honey BBQ nuggets (380 calories), Pasta Salad (150 calories), Cucumber Salad (25 Calories)