Jared Cohen

Chief Operating Officer,
Protein Bar & Kitchen

The changing business of fast food

A former strategy consultant is working to improve how we eat

What were your early years like?
I grew up in Philadelphia, the oldest of four brothers. From a young age, I was naturally interested in business. I think my first business was actually selling bookmarks to other students at school (I’m not an artist, so I got my little brothers to draw them). So when I went to Penn State, I majored in finance. And when I graduated, I was hired to join a rotational leadership program at AT&T, which was great because it gave me a chance to learn different things within a large corporation.

How did you make the move to consulting?
When I joined the corporate strategy group at AT&T as part of my rotation, it opened my eyes. I loved the problem-solving part of it. A few years later, when I went to business school at the University of Chicago, I focused on consulting.

Any lasting lessons from your five years at Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.)?
More than anything, I took with me the value of intellectual curiosity. I learned how to keep an open mind toward understanding problems, new industries, and changing forces impacting your industry. I learned how to take a hypothesis-driven approach to problem-solving, how to ask questions and gather evidence. That’s something I continue to leverage now—there’s huge value in constantly asking questions.

What was your focus as a consultant?
I joined the operations practice, but I quickly realized that I felt most energized by my consumer-facing projects. I remember when I was working with a major grocery manufacturer, I’d walk through the supermarket and think about price pack architecture, or the assortment they carried, or how they could direct better ROI on a grocery promotion. I loved thinking about those kinds of issues and how companies can help influence consumer decision-making.

Why did you leave the firm?
Leaving PwC was the hardest career transition I’ve gone through to date. It was agonizing, because I loved the people I was working with. But when an opportunity arose at McDonald’s, to help with that company’s turnaround, it was something I couldn’t pass up.

What drew you from McDonalds to a much smaller food company?
My role at McDonalds was in the strategy group, so I identified emerging growth opportunities, like the collaboration we formed with Uber Eats. And, over time, my work on that relationship evolved from strategy into some execution, and I realized how energizing those operational aspects were. I figured out I wanted to do more of that and that it wasn’t going to happen unless I found a smaller brand. I was a Protein Bar & Kitchen customer and I loved the concept (there was one down the street from McDonald’s HQ), and I thought they could benefit from my strategy experience, so I reached out to them.

What’s the best part of your role as COO?
Every day is different. And because we are a small team, I’m involved in everything. But I think the part I like most is diagnosing and understanding our customers and their behaviors, so we can better serve them. We recently did a complete brand refresh, making sure both our new and existing customers know exactly who we are. People used to come in unsure if we were a restaurant – now we clearly communicate that we’re “Delicious! Nutritious! and Protein-Packed!” We’re really evolving the company in exciting ways across our physical storefronts, our digital platforms, and of course our menu. We now have 19 restaurants, roughly 250 to 300 employees. We operate in primarily in the Chicago market, but we have locations in Washington D.C., Denver, and Boulder, Colorado as well.

Reflecting on your career so far, what makes you feel most proud?
I’m particularly proud of the turnaround we’ve seen at Protein Bar & Kitchen over the past couple of years. We’ve made a lot of changes that have had a material impact on the trajectory of our business, and now we’re starting to get industry recognition and market recognition. I’m excited about what that says about the work that we’ve done and what we think it signals for our future opportunities. Our vision is to dramatically accelerate our growth through traditional and franchising/licensing expansion in the next few years.

Outside of the office, when and where are you happiest?
I try to spend as much time as possible with my wife and our kids. We have a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. But if I’m not playing with my kids or taking them to a birthday party on the weekend, I’d probably be watching an Eagles game. I’m a big Philadelphia sports fan.

What’s the best career advice you can offer?
Have a bias toward action. It’s always easier to wait than to decide, but if you make a decision, you’ll usually be right. Actively doing something is the only way to drive change.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative content studio in Brooklyn. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

Follow us