Power Hungry: Controlling The Energy-Bar Business.
PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell, himself once a world-ranked marathoner, is facing his own race -- a run for the money. Since Maxwell more or less founded the industry a decade ago, the energy-bar business has ballooned to a multimillion-dollar market. In 1994 retail sales of energy bars totaled $60 million. But after years as the only player in the field, Maxwell is now feeling the hot breath of rivals in his own backyard, particularly Clif Bar in Emeryville, CA and BTU Stoker across the San Francisco Bay in Marin.The competition is getting rough. Stephen Fletcher, co-founder of vigorous up-and-comer BTU Stoker, says his product will soon give all other energy bars "the fuzzy-legged Birkenstock punt to the dumpster.""I don't like the way PowerBars taste," says Fletcher, a triathlete and former personal trainer. "I don't like the way they get hard. And when I started looking into the ingredients I just felt like I could do better. Rather than having a big blob of fructose corn syrup with some vitamins in it, I wanted to put in some real foods -- apples, dates, raisins."Three years ago Fletcher started Stoker with training buddy Paul Eveloff. Today the company produces three flavors, cocoa, apple-oat and orange-cranberry, and claims to be chewing at PowerBar's heels.A tall man with the sort of physique that's the goal of energy-bar eaters everywhere, Fletcher is obviously busy -- he just won't say how busy. But if commotion is any measure of vitality, then his is certainly one of the stronger enterprises in the energy-bar industry. Fletcher can barely make himself heard above the din at Stoker's chaotic two-room headquarters in Mill Valley, CA. Like Fletcher, dressed in shorts and sandals, most of the Stoker employees are clad in casual attire. One makes a loud sales pitch to a potential customer over the phone, oblivious to the interview being conducted at her elbow.Fletcher declines to hazard a guess as to his market share, but charges eagerly into the fray when asked to assess his competitors. Any mention of PowerBar is akin to the proverbial red cape. "PowerBar is the Coca-Cola of energy bars," Fletcher snorts. "Their primary ingredient is the same as Coca-Cola's, which is high-fructose corn syrup."Corn syrup bashing is a favorite exercise among the Stoker team, who declare fervently that their sweetener -- brown-rice syrup -- beats all others. Stoker's jam-packed office is scattered with press releases announcing educational campaigns against high-fructose corn syrup. Everyone is an athlete with, it seems, a personal investment in the one true natural energy source."We're all stoked!" Fletcher happily exclaims."If our country was more nutrition conscious we would be the number-one energy bar in the country," asserts Stoker PR man Chris Cameron. Fletcher says unrefined brown-rice syrup is superior because it's easier to digest than corn syrup. He says PowerBar's sweetener is no better than white sugar. "The only reason they don't put sugar in it," he scoffs, "is because high-fructose corn syrup is even cheaper than sugar."If PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell is bothered by such talk, he shows no sign of it. Calm and soft-spoken, he's a picture of the success that can be achieved in this business. Some industry watchers predict the energy-bar market will be worth $128 million by 1999.In the reception lounge of PowerBar's Berkeley, CA headquarters, framed posters feature San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young and other high-profile spokespeople. There's also an early ad depicting Maxwell, the marathoner, caught in midstride, his face contorted in determination. Upstairs in his office, Maxwell, the businessman, is unimposing. His public relations chief sits by, taking notes, but Maxwell does the talking, speaking with quiet intensity.Maxwell's manner seems to underscore a genuine belief in his product. The PowerBar was his personal answer to the green drinks and Tiger's Milk Bars that made up the sports-food market in the '80s. As a marathoner, he wanted something substantial yet low in fat to put in his stomach before a run or a race. There was nothing, so he decided to make something himself.In 1983 he teamed up with University of California-Berkeley nutrition student Jennifer Biddulph and the two began experimenting with whole grains and other ingredients in his Berkeley kitchen. With help from a chemistry Ph.D., they developed prototypes. The first bars were wrapped in wax paper and given to athletic friends."Horrible glop," Maxwell admits. The only place people ran on those bars was straight to the bathroom, he says. After awhile, though, he hit on a recipe and friends started asking for more of "those power bars." The name stuck, and today PowerFood Inc. dominates the market. Maxwell hopes to reach $50 million in sales this year.It wasn't simply nutrition Maxwell was after, nor just convenience, but an aura. "We wanted something you could get psyched up on," he says. "Say you're going to do a marathon. You've been through a lot of training and on the morning of the race you think, OK, I'm going to eat this and it's going to taste good and it's the right thing for me."By 1988 Maxwell and Biddulph were married and their company was hiring employees. Now there's a plant in Idaho, a distribution facility in North Carolina and a sister company in Maxwell's native Canada. PowerBars come in six flavors, ranging from the original malt-nut to Mark Coogan's favorites, apple-cinnamon and banana.As for the corn syrup debate, Maxwell shrugs off Fletcher's claim that brown-rice syrup is a more "natural" sweetener. "You don't see rice syrup growing out in a field any more than you see corn syrup growing out in a field. What you see is corn and rice."Maxwell's competitive streak runs deep. Asked if he thinks he can run faster than Stoker founder Fletcher, he doesn't miss a beat: "I know I can." He says his strategy regarding his competition is to ignore it. "That's one of the lessons in marathon running. When you're out in front you don't look back."While PowerBar and Stoker squabble over sweeteners, they are united in their disdain for their industry's rising star, the Clif Bar, which they dismiss as a mere "cookie," phrasing the word as if there were no crueler insult in the sports-food business."We don't consider it an energy bar," Maxwell says. "It's baked. Look at the wrapper -- it doesn't have any vitamins or minerals."Such criticism ruffles nary a hair on the balding pate of Clif Bar creator Gary Erickson. He smiles easily and readily warms to any challenge of his product. He knows Maxwell calls the Clif Bar a cookie. He doesn't care. "You know what? That's fine," he says. "I actually like that he says that. He wouldn't say it if he didn't think we're a threat to his market share."A self-described "Renaissance athlete," Erickson says he used to eat PowerBars himself until a fateful 175-mile bike ride around California's Central Valley. On that day he'd taken along one banana-and six PowerBars. "I finished five PowerBars and I could barely get that fifth one down," he recalls. Starved for fuel, he stopped at a convenience store, where he wolfed down a package of powdered mini doughnuts.That's when he decided to create a baked energy bar that actually tasted good. He thinks he's succeeded: like other bars, the Clif Bar is low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates, but Erickson says the most often-heard comment is that it tastes like "real food."Now the cookie man is a contender. Erickson's company has grown "about 1,000 percent" since the Clif Bar debuted in 1992, and he reports his nationally distributed bars are the second-best-selling energy bars in the country. In the natural foods market he estimates Clif Bar sales are close to matching PowerBar's.Erickson compares his company to Ben & Jerry's or Tom's of Maine, emphasizing natural ingredients like whole grains and pieces of real fruit. Lest serious athletes doubt the cookie-like Clif Bar, Erickson points out that miler Regina Davis, a gold-medal hopeful at the Olympics, is a Clif Bar convert."She used to eat PowerBars and now she's come to us," he says. "She couldn't believe that a product made with these high-quality, nutritious ingredients could taste so good."Erickson adds that he's planning to boost the Clif Bar's protein content from four to 10 grams, an amount comparable to PowerBar and Stoker. Despite digs from Stoker and competition from other homegrown products like Edge Bar (in Richmond) and Hard Body (in Fairfield), Erickson has his sights set on PowerBar. "We're not fighting Stoker," he says. "We're not fighting Edge Bar. The competition is PowerBar."And maybe PowerBarf his front-running philosophy, Maxwell is glancing back. "What's really frustrating about Clif and Stoker and these others is that they ride in our slipstream," he grumbles. "We go and get PowerBars into a certain supermarket account and they come along and say, 'We're just like PowerBar.'""That's part of being the number-one seller," Erickson responds. "I mean, gosh, get a clue, Brian. Enjoy it. Feel proud. You've opened up a market for people."Erickson now has plans to expand his offices and move from Emeryville to west Berkeley, just a mile from Maxwell's headquarters.What is it about the San Francisco Bay Area that has so many folks psyched on energy bars? While the trend is not only a regional phenomenon -- most energy bars are nationally distributed -- the founders of the companies were no doubt influenced by what marketing experts call the "psychographics" of the local populace. "The psychographics of the Bay Area are certainly different from other parts of the country," says Russ Winer, professor of marketing at UC Berkeley.That said, Winer adds that he doesn't think the bar boom will last. "In a relatively new market a successful company will attract some competitors, but after a few years you'll get a market shakeout." He points to the meteoric life cycle of high-alcohol "ice" beers, which have now all but disappeared from the consciousness of consumers. "My guess is these bars won't expand," Winer says, "because they taste lousy."PowerBar is endeavoring to prove Winer wrong by attracting the non-performance athlete. That means you, and that's why PowerBar ads feature Steve Young, a favorite of armchair quarterbacks everywhere. Maxwell envisions '90s consumers of all stripes taking advantage of PowerBar's convenient energy."If you're a stockbroker and you get up at 4:30 in the morning and you're driving on the freeway, you can eat a PowerBar so that when you start answering the phones at 5, you've got a lot of energy and you can do a better job than somebody else. Sports are a great metaphor for challenges," he says, "but life is a competitive challenge also."Of course, some nutritionists point out that if one of your challenges is your weight, a high-carbohydrate energy bar might not be the best way to face it."There's nothing wrong with a PowerBar or a Clif Bar if you want to have that as your mid-event snack," says author and syndicated columnist Ed Blonz, who has a Ph.D in nutrition. "But you're paying a premium for it. If you want the panache of having a sports bar with you -- you know, you rip open a sports bar while you're midway through an event, while you're dripping with sweat -- you also have to realize that you're replacing a lot of the calories you're attempting to burn off. If this is part of a weight-loss regimen you've blown it. When you unwrap that bar you're taking in calories that negate any weight loss that you might have hoped for."Blonz stays away from energy bars during his workouts. In fact, lying around the house are some Clif Bars he's been trying to avoid eating. "I tried giving them to my 10-year-old son for after soccer practice," he says. "He didn't like them very much -- he thought they were too grainy. He goes for M&Ms any day."Obviously, energy bars aren't for everyone, but snacking on the same specially formulated food that fuels the 49ers quarterback does have undeniable appeal."What's the point of having a 240-horsepower engine in your BMW when the speed limit is 65?" Maxwell says. "People like to dream." Sidebar #1FUEL FIGHT: Sports bars argue over the best calorie source, but nutritionists say the debate is a waste of energy.Registered dietitian Andy Bohn compiled a fact sheet on energy bars for the sports medicine program at UC Berkeley. According to her, all the wrangling over brown-rice syrup versus high-fructose corn syrup is moot. "First and foremost you should look at the ratio of fat to carbohydrate in an energy bar," she says. She recommends a bar contain less than 30 percent fat and more than 60 percent carbohydrates. Then check out the ratio of simple to complex carbohydrates. A perusal of the wrapper shows that both PowerBar and Stoker are low in fat and sport a similar ratio of simple to complex carbohydrates.How the carbohydrates work together to provide energy deserves some explanation. Simple carbohydrates, like fructose (fruit sugar) and sucrose (cane sugar), are easy to break down and are what the body uses for quick energy. Complex carbohydrates like rice, oats, wheat flour and maltodextrins, take longer to break down and provide sustained energy. To determine the carbohydrate ratio, first check the wrapper for the number of grams of total carbohydrates. Then find the grams of sugars (simple carbohydrates) and subtract that from the total, which gives you the number of grams of complex carbohydrates. Some nutritionists recommend a 50-50 ratio, but most advise experimenting to find a bar that works best for you."A mixture of complex and simple carbohydrates is designed to provide energy that acts quickly and lasts," Bohn says. "If one source of the total carbohydrate in the bar is high-fructose corn syrup, then it's not going to be bad for you. Now, if 80 percent of the carbos comes from a refined sugar, that's something else." That's a Hershey bar.