Mario Mendias, Building A Fit Nation, One Meal at a Time

By Courtenay Verret – October 25, 2012
Brian Fitzsimmons
As a personal trainer, Mario Mendias saw the same scenarios play out with his clients on a daily basis: They would commit to following a fitness program, drag themselves to the gym five days a week, but ultimately become discouraged by their lack of results. The time constraints of their busy lives rendered them unable to cook healthy meals for themselves, and their energy levels were low. Mendias believed that the problem lay with what his clients were eating—too much of the wrong kinds of foods—but his lack of nutritional expertise left him guessing at solutions. When a client called him out for being nutritionally ignorant, Mendias began to research in earnest what truly constitutes a healthy diet. His self-study led to a business idea that resulted in My Fit Foods—an exploding chain of stores that sells healthy, prepared meals with scores of customers who have improved the quality of their lives through food and fitness.

A Passion for Fitness

Mendias’ route to personal trainer and successful business owner was a circuitous, and sometimes unlikely, one. Born in Marfa, Texas, he grew up outside of Los Angeles in Culver City, California. When he was 12 years old, his next-door neighbor, a personal trainer, sparked his interest in health and fitness. “He told me he helped people get into shape,” said Mendias. “He said, ‘People who are overweight, or have diabetes, or want to build muscle; I help them get fit and moving again.’” The conversation made Mendias think about his own grandparents: both of them were overweight, and one of them suffered with diabetes. “As a 12-year-old, I thought [being a personal trainer] was really cool. I thought it was a good job, and that thought stuck with me over the next decade.” Mendias’ unexpected first step toward this professional aspiration was the United States Marine Corps, where he quickly learned that his physical fitness could use some improvement. “When I started in the Marine Corps, I was slow,” he said. “I almost didn’t make it in.” He was soon whipped into shape, however, and it wasn’t long before he had cut his three-mile run time almost in half and had more than quadrupled the number of pull-ups he could do in one set. Mendias ended his military career at the age of 23 and found a job making minimum wage as a tire boy in Santa Monica. He eventually worked his way up to mechanic and made the decision to move back to Texas, settling in Houston.

Fight for Survival

It was a life-or-death struggle on December 10, 2000, that caused Mendias to re-evaluate…everything. While attending a party with a friend, he suddenly found himself involved in an altercation with a group of gang members who had crashed the event. Out of respect for his host and bolstered by his self-proclaimed “Marine confidence,” he escorted one of the unruly gang members outside, who—unbeknownst to Mendias—was carrying a gun. The situation immediately escalated. “[He] shot me three times,” Mendias said. “The other three times he missed. I’ve never been in a life or death situation like that, but suddenly I’m on the street wrestling with a guy with a gun that is trying to kill me. It was a fight for survival.” Mendias managed to knock out his attacker and was taken to the hospital where he was treated for his gunshot wounds. Miraculously, he survived.

As he recovered in the hospital, he had plenty of time for reflection. As one might expect, the experience had profoundly affected him—as had the words of the man in the hospital bed next to him. “[He was] talking about regrets he had in life,” Mendias said. “I don’t really have any family members, at least not close ones. I was in a new city with one friend, and it was a pretty lonely time in my life. I made a pact with myself that I didn’t want to have regrets in my life.”

A Life With No Regrets

Rather than return to his job as a mechanic, once he was discharged from the hospital, Mendias walked into a 24-Hour Fitness gym, determined to get a job as a personal trainer. He walked out instead as a floor instructor, “Which is basically the janitor, which is basically a trainer in training,” Mendias laughed. “Once again, I was back down to minimum wage, but at least I was following my heart.” Within four months, however, he was promoted to personal trainer, and within four more months he was promoted to fitness manager, eventually running eight different gyms. After spending time with his clients, Mendias began to notice that some of them were not getting the results they wanted because they were not making the necessary changes to their diets. “People are trying to work out all the time. I think it’s so important,” he said. “But, if you’re not eating right, it doesn’t matter how hard you work out. After all, you can be a fit, fat person.” Knowing that diet accounts for nearly 80 percent of weight loss, Mendias began making—with the best of intentions—nutritional suggestions to his clients. After recommending what he calls a “bad diet” to a client who was diabetic, he was told he was “ignorant” when it came to nutrition. “It really embarrassed me, and I felt terrible that I couldn’t get my clients the results they deserved,” he said.

Nutrition 101

Using his embarrassment as motivation, Mendias began to self-educate, reading more than 50 books on diet and nutrition in a six-month period. “I read books likeSugar BustersFrom Fat to FitUltra Metabolism, and Body for Life,” he said. Mendias learned from his reading that portion control is only part of the story when it comes to weight loss: “It’s not just calories in versus calories out,” he explained. “The type of calories you put in can affect whether you [exercise] further, faster, and with less fatigue. Eating right taps your true potential. The greatest athlete is probably sitting on the couch and will never even know because they’re not fueling their body the right way and getting the energy their body needs to be active.” According to Mendias, the food we eat can affect everything from the hormones we produce to inflammation in our bodies. “If the body is in an inflamed state, you’re going to suffer from disease,” he said. “You’re going to accumulate more body fat; you won’t feel good. When you take away wheat, gluten, soy, and dairy, the body is not in an inflamed state.” Knowing that most processed and fast food—staples of the standard American diet—is full of sugar, triggers allergies, and causes inflammation, Mendias learned which lean proteins, grains, and spices would reduce inflammation and promote good health. Mendias also changed his opinion about fats, after learning that so-called “healthy” oils lose their beneficial properties when heated past their smoke point. He explained that olive oil, for example, has a smoke point of 250 degrees—well below the average cooking temperature for most food preparation. He began to research which healthy fats have higher smoke points, and experimented cooking with macadamia, sunflower, and coconut oil. Rounding out Mendias’ newfound nutritional knowledge was the importance of strategic eating—knowing how much to eat at what times during the day. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” he asserted. “After all, you’ve been fasting for eight hours. I’ve never seen anyone take a long [road] trip without filling up first. The same thing goes for your body. Mendias explained that properly fueling at the beginning of the day and eating less at night will help the body function more optimally, reducing cravings and promoting weight loss. “If you start out with a strong breakfast, strong morning snack, and strong lunch, you’re not going to crave such a big snack in the afternoon and at 9 p.m. at night,” he said. Mendias used a triangle diagram to illustrate his point: A smiling, inverted triangle—wide at the top, slender at the bottom—represents both the ideal daily intake of food and the body’s resulting physical state. A frowning, right-side up triangle—small at the top and wider at the bottom—represents the exact opposite.

Taking His Own Advice

Realizing that he needed to be an example for his clients, Mendias began to implement these nutritional recommendations himself: cooking with lean proteins as well as low-glycemic and allergen-free foods, using healthy oils with high smoke points, and eating strategically throughout the day. He credited his dietary changes with feeling better, having more energy—and finally being able to achieve a six-pack. Excited about his newfound knowledge, Mendias once again began talking to his clients about what they were eating. “During every single resting set, I starting asking [them] about their nutrition and giving them helpful hints as to what they should be eating,” he said. However, Mendias noticed that a common problem was surfacing. “They would say, ‘This is great, but I don’t have time to cook healthy and I don’t really know how to.’”

Late-Night Breakthrough

The frustration of wanting to do more to help his clients, combined with the fatigue of working six days a week, began to wear on Mendias. One night, unsure how he would sustain such a hectic pace for the rest of his life, he got on his hands and knees. “[It was] the simplest of prayers,” he said: “‘I want to help people out and earn a good living doing it.’” Mendias went to bed, only to awaken from a dream with a bright idea: “FitDonalds”—a restaurant serving fast, healthy meals for healthy people. “When I was looking inside, I could see the kids were fit, the parents were fit; there were some who were not fit, but were on their way to getting fit,” he said. “There was one FitDonalds, and then there was another. I could see Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and the next thing you knew, it was all over the world.” He relayed the dream back to himself on a tape recorder to affirm his vision, but he knew he didn’t have the money to start opening stores. Undaunted, he began to cook meals out of his apartment kitchen for test clients—a small group of secretaries who worked for his friends. So enthusiastic was Mendias about his idea, however, he had overlooked one significant detail: Taste. “They didn’t want to reorder,” he laughed. “One lady said, ‘Mario, we love you, but your food is just horrible.’” Realizing that he needed some help in the kitchen, Mendias teamed up with a chef who, ironically, worked at McDonalds. Drawing from his reading on diet and nutrition, Mendias showed her which proteins, carbs, spices, and fats he wanted to use, and together the two of them cooked and packaged meals for delivery twice a week. Mendias soon began cooking for some of his clients in the gym, and they began seeing results: Their metabolism was speeding up, they were burning fat, and their hormone levels were balancing out. They were also getting desirable side benefits. Mendias noted the results of one client who had been working out with him five days a week for six months: “[H]er energy levels were going up, she said she was sleeping better, she was off coffee and alcohol, and her mental focus was ridiculous. She was an executive and said her work had never been easier and she had never felt so clear.”

A Grueling Endeavor

Although the success of Mendias’ business was spreading—others in the gym began signing up for meals—he was quickly learning how grueling and time consuming running a small business could be, particularly when seed money was practically non-existent. He rented a catering kitchen that allowed him to cook from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. twice a week, and he hired two cooks whom he paid with the money he earned from personal training. On a “cooking day,” Mendias worked at the gym from 5 a.m. until noon, then left to shop for food at Restaurant Depot, Sam’s, and H.E.B. After dropping off the food, he would return to the gym to work until 8 p.m., then head to the kitchen to help cook until midnight. Once the food was done, his cooks would leave, leaving him to package the meals on his own. “I wouldn’t go to sleep,” Mendias said. “I’d usually finish at about 4 or 4:30 a.m., go straight back to the gym and take about 25 percent of the meals. From noon to 4 p.m. I would make home deliveries, go back to the gym to train, then head to the catering kitchen from 6 to 10 p.m. to wait for people to pick up their food. And then I would sleep, the next day getting up at 4 a.m. Let me tell you, those six hours [of sleep] were wonderful.”

Small Business Woes

Mendias sustained this grueling pace from April to November of 2006, all the while witnessing the remarkable results of his clients. In spite of the success of his product, however, the business was in serious financial trouble. Out of money and ideas, Mendias was at yet another breaking point: “I was sitting in the car…it was raining outside. I beat my fists against the steering wheel and kept thinking that I didn’t know how to do it.” After a few hours, however, Mendias came up with the 21-Day Challenge program: Customers signed up to eat his meals for 21 days—the amount of time needed to change a habit—as a way of making a commitment to themselves and to their health. “People paid upfront and that’s how I made it out of the slump,” Mendias said. “So from the 40-plus clients I had, they ended up investing in themselves and helping my cause to the tune of $35,000, which floated me until January.” Things were looking up for Mendias until he left town for a week to visit his grandmother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Trusting the business in the hands of his catering kitchen, Mendias returned from his trip to discover that the cooks had cut meal portions in half in an effort to save money. The result was a group of very angry customers. “I lost about half of my clients that week,” he said, “and the other half that I didn’t lose were pissed off at me.” Mendias called every single client and offered them free food for a week as a way to restore their faith, but the gesture had the side effect of draining every last dollar from the business. With no money to pay his employees, and three months behind on his bills, Mendias once more reached out for help—this time to his mother, with whom he had a strained relationship. “I told her I needed $25,000. She told me to ‘go to a bank’ and hung up,” he laughed. The very next day, however, a check arrived from his mother, who had pooled her money with two of her friends. “I ended up paying it back in a few months and with enough interest to put a smile on their faces,” he said. Mendias was also able to buy out his original business partner and take sole ownership of the company, which he renamed My Fit Foods. (He would later give this former partner 3 percent of the company as a thank you for helping him get started.)

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

February 2007 marked—finally—a positive turning point for Mendias when he met his future business partner, Anthony Milton. “I was missing someone who could run the kitchen for me, and I was losing money because of it,” he said. The first My Fit Foods retail location opened in April of 2007 with Milton at the helm of the kitchen, “and that’s when the business took off,” said Mendias. It was a modest location: 900 square feet, a bench from IKEA that sank under the weight of their computer, and a used cooler from a florist shop whose broken handle had been replaced with a suction cup and a piece of rope. Mendias recounted the hours of preparation leading up to the opening. “I was working with my business partner’s wife and we’re doing the floors, and she started crying: ‘My hands are bleeding; we’re not going to be successful.’ I told her, ‘You’ve got blood, you’ve got sweat, you’ve got tears put into this floor; I can tell you we’re going to be successful.’”

The Long Reach of Success

And successful they were: Today there are My Fit Foods stores in four states and 22 cities, with plans underway for more expansion. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of good people with nice bank accounts who wanted to help me find some stores,” Mendias said. “My Fit Foods gave guarantees, never missed payroll, never bounced a check, never missed an investor payment. I always returned their investment money within 36 months.” The company serves a diverse customer base, from people needing a plan to lose weight, to athletes wanting to maintain their form, to health-conscious people who just need to pick up a healthy meal on their way home from work. Impressively, the store has succeeded primarily by word-of-mouth advertising. “On average, we give away 100,000 meals a month for the purposes of marketing,” Mendias said. “People need free meals so they can understand that eating healthy can be tasty.” My Fit Foods also organizes “Lunch & Learns” for companies who offer employee wellness programs, and regularly attends sporting events and fitness fairs. One of Mendias’ original business concepts—the 21-Day Challenge—remains one of the most popular offerings of My Fit Foods. Customers work with a nutritional consultant who identifies their goals and helps guide them through the three-week program. Part health coach, part cheerleader, the nutritional consultants are trained to educate their clients about food chemistry and portion control, and to offer strategies that will help them overcome unhealthy cravings and set them up for success. Over the years, Mendias has witnessed countless success stories of clients who have dropped weight and gone off of their medications for blood pressure, diabetes, and anxiety. “These are not rare cases,” he said. “It happens quite often. Our programs really work, and we have walking and talking testimonials spreading the word for us every day.”

High Quality Ingredients, High Quality Employees

Integral to My Fit Foods’ success, said Mendias, is the quality of their product: “[We] use the highest quality ingredients and charge less than a lot of competitors out there.” He explained that My Fit Foods meals are made fresh, without preservatives, and the meat is hormone-free and delivered daily from reliable, local vendors. Grains, such as pasta, rice, and quinoa are organic, as are some of their in-season fruits and vegetables. According to Mendias, customers can taste the difference, and that quality is what makes them return. What also makes My Fit Foods’ customers return, said Mendias, are their employees and the company’s culture of customer service. “We have about 1,000 quality employees now,” he said. “It’s not the pay, it’s that they care.” He cited their practice of walking customers’ bags of food to their cars as an example: “[Originally], I’d walk people’s bags to their cars because I knew them; they were my friends, and also because of safety reasons. To this day…it’s part of company culture. Our employees care about taking care of customers. They’re the backbone of My Fit Foods’ success.”

Physical Fitness Still Means Better Results

Mendias strongly believes that when it comes to diet and exercise, it’s a two-way street: Nutritionists need to be focused on fitness, and fitness instructors need to be focused on nutrition. He reiterated that although diet accounts for 80 percent of results in any weight loss program, physical fitness still plays an essential role. “If you’re not working out, you’re not getting the best results,” he said. “Life is too short not to get the best results.” Ironically, said Mendias, once people begin to eat better, they often feel so good that they don’t want to remain couch potatoes: “If you’re eating right, you can’t just sit behind a computer; you have to get out and run—it’s a natural thing that comes from having excess energy.” In order to ensure that their clients get the best results possible, My Fit Foods works extensively with local professional trainers and gyms that are equally customer focused to provide fitness options for their clients. “If you walk inside the store,” Mendias said, “one of the questions we’ll ask you is whether you currently work out. If you say no, we’ll recommend that you get with a trainer. And the first week of training is 100 percent on the house. There is really no excuse not to give it your all.”

Focused on the Future

Today, Mendias focuses his attention on My Fit Foods’ ongoing expansion, investments, and company culture, while his business partner and company CEO Anthony Milton runs the day-to-day operations. “He is the most important person in my life, and he’s my best friend, and to work with your best friend and a guy who is smarter, works harder, and has a better attitude than you is more than anything I could have asked for,” Mendias said. Although by anyone’s standards Mendias would be considered hugely successful, his vision is big. He hopes to open a My Fit Foods in every major market and to eventually create a nationwide mail-order program that delivers fresh, unfrozen food with a 14-day shelf life. “My goal is for anyone in the U.S. who wants to eat healthy [to be able to] get food from a retail store front or delivered to their homes,” he said. My Fit Foods has already partnered with H.E.B. to provide kiosks in select stores, and Mendias hopes to begin partnering with other grocery chains, such as Whole Foods Market. The company has already released “MyFit” brand products, such as water, salsa, and nutritional supplements, and more products are on the way. Ultimately, Mendias’ sights are set on taking My Fit Foods global: “My Fit U.S., My Fit U.K., My Fit Australia, My Fit Canada…you get the point,” he laughed. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to take care of their health and fitness, and anything I can do to help that mission, I will.” Mendias acknowledged that his goals are lofty, but given his track record of hard-earned success, he is convinced that they are achievable. More importantly, he believes that the consumer demand is there. “No one has taken nutrition and fitness and truly owned that concept while making it accessible and desirable for the masses,” he said. “It was a niche that needed to be filled, and we did it.” Mendias’ target is a nutritionally savvy MyFit Nation with healthy, affordable meal choices—and My Fit Foods is the arrow. 


Mario Mendias encourages anyone interested in a nutritional consultation and fitness trainer recommendation to email him personally at Mario@myfitfoods.com with his or her goals, including current weight, height, eating schedule, activity level, and location.

 
 

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