Catching Up with Eric Zaltas and the Re-birth of PowerBar

PowerBar is a brand that has lived through a lot over the last 20+ years. Eric Zaltas has been right alongside for most of it. We sat down with him to catch up on the relaunch of PowerBar and what you might be able to expect next. Please start by telling us a bit about where you are from, and just a little bit about your family and cycling history.

Eric Zaltas: Born in the Bronx, attended the Bronx High School of Science and started bike racing on the road in Central Park, and on the track at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens. After college, I raced full time on the US National Road Team and wore the stars and stripes in stage races in Morocco, Germany, I did the Milk Race in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Guadeloupe and Mexico – great stories behind each one... I also raced in most of the states in the US – lots of criteriums, road races and stage races. And I’ve raced on half dozen of our velodromes – Kissena was the roughest by far – though they resurfaced it not that long ago. I had about 75 career victories including a US National Championship in the Team Time Trial.

Eventually I settled in Berkeley where I got married and the kids were born. When the kids were still young we moved to Switzerland for a few years where Nestle global headquarters are and when they still owned PowerBar. The kids learned French in school and in the playground and I did some great riding in the Alps with some other Nestle expats and also did IM Switzerland in Zurich. While there I led research collaborations with some of the top sports scientists in the world including Asker Jeukendrup in the UK and Louise Burke and John Hawley in Australia. Those collaborations resulted in studies published in solid journals and answered some practical questions like do carbs in gels, bars and sports drink get absorbed and used by muscles at the same rate. We also studied the best way to use protein for sports recovery with different types of athletes.

After Switzerland, we moved to Northern NJ where Nestle chose to move the global PowerBar headquarters. NJ is where I still reside – about 25 miles from where I grew up in the Bronx. My oldest is finishing up her first semester at college where she has tested negative for Covid weekly for the last 12 weeks. And my son is a sophomore in high school where he is on the Ultimate Frisbee team and rides his bike to practice and on the local trails. When did you first start at PowerBar and what was your role?

EZ: Pretty sure I ate my first PowerBar at the Tour of Texas bike race around 1986 or 87 when they were given out to the elite racers along with the original Oakley Factory Pilots. I started working at PowerBar around 2002 in the tall building downtown Berkeley with the big PowerBar sign on the top that you could see from pretty much anywhere on campus. I first came as Manager of Scientific Affairs. I worked on new product development and also developed communications relating to the science behind PowerBar products to consumers and the athlete ambassador program, PowerBar Team Elite. How many companies have you worked for during all the transitions?

EZ: Nestle was the brand owner when I joined and then Nestle sold PowerBar about six years ago to Post. Now I am with the startup my partner, Tom Federico, and I started a couple of years ago: Pivot Nutrition. Pivot has exclusive rights to distribute the PowerBar products for athletes – the gels, chews, powders and now the original PowerBar bars! What was the hardest thing to watch these larger companies do to the original brand?

EZ: I have worked with many smart and talented people at Nestle and Post. Some who didn’t come from the endurance sports world but learned it. What was difficult for me was the churn. There were changes to the team driving the strategy and marketing efforts about every three years. A team would just be figuring out the relationship between the brand, the products, the consumers and retail customers and then there would be an office location move which led to a sizeable staff change. The new people that came in had to climb a steep learning curve. And they’d just about be getting it and there would be another change. At what point did you decide to give the relaunch a try?

EZ: After Post decided to discontinue the products for athletic consumers, I asked if I could take over that part of the portfolio and they were great in agreeing to let me give it a go. No mass distribution – just back to the roots with sports specialty retailers. We got back into the market in May 2019 after about a year of the products not being available. So we had a few summer months, then an off season, then COVID-19. Don’t ask me to time the stock market or pick the ponies for you… Tell us a little bit about the products you first brought back and why?

EZ: We have a complete selection of the PowerBar energy products. All of them have C2Max as their carbohydrate base. C2Max is a 2:1 ratio of glucose:fructose that is absorbed fast into the bloodstream so it can get from your mouth to your muscles as fast as possible. This allows athletes to take in more grams of carbs per hour and this has been shown to improve endurance performance dramatically. I counsel athletes in my area and when they increase their intake of C2Max carbs, they have seen their endurance performance improve. A first time Boston Marathon qualifier was one of the success stories after her numerous tries. There are still many athletes that do not take advantage of the current scientific advice in sports nutrition. It is my true passion to share this information with my fellow endurance athletes. You train hard and make so many sacrifices to get fitter and faster - and with some simple sports nutrition changes you can go faster.

So C2Max is in the PowerGels, and the new PowerGel Hydros – which are more liquid-y gels that you don’t need to chase with water. The chews are called PowerGel Shots. The light tasting sports drink, Isoactive, is gaining a real following. And, of course, the PowerBar Energize bar – the original – contains that same C2Max blend. All of these products can be used interchangeably to get to your target carb intake per hour. We also have the awesome tasting RecoveryMax – which tastes like a chocolate shake – while delivering 20g of high quality protein that will jump start the muscle recovery and rebuilding process. Any new products that we should be looking out for coming soon?

EZ: My background is in R&D and I have many ideas for innovations in sports nutrition. We are looking at introducing some of these next summer or fall. As for PowerBar – we are presently focused on our recently launched PowerBar Energize bar and then once that is established we will start rolling out some new flavors of the current lineup and then some cool new stuff. Are any of your solid products Gluten Free?

EZ: The PowerGels, PowerGel Hydros and the PowerGel Shots (chews) are all gluten free. Do you ever mix the mojito PowerGel Hydro in a real mojito?

EZ: Yes, the Mojito Hydro has, in fact, been served up as a mixer for a different kind of post-exercise beverage when it is more about reward than recovery… Were you surprised at all at how many old customers started to reach out when you relaunched?

EZ: We have been really pleased with the athlete response from both the OG as well as younger athletes from across the endurance spectrum. Many old customers were reaching out as well and placing orders but just as we were gaining a little traction the COVID stop sign showed up at retail. We’re excited to get this train back on the tracks and support the retailers who have been through a seriously rough time these last months. Who works fulltime at PowerBar now?

EZ: Me and Tom. Chad Comstock and Natalie Ferguson are old school PowerBar sports marketing and have been working with events and athletes for decades with PowerBar. They are part time for now. We have also one part time admin and that’s it reminiscent of the old days for PowerBar. Who are your key sponsored Athletes?

EZ: Des Linden is a longtime PowerBar athlete and she is part of the comeback squad. Also, longtime PowerBar athletes are 2-time Ironman champion Tim Deboom and also Ironman winner and awesome influencer, Nicole DeBoom. Josh Cox, incredible distance runner, and Des’ agent and longtime PowerBar ambassador, is also back on the team. We have about 50 other athletes on PowerBar Team Elite - some with deep roots in PowerBar and some brand new to the brand. You can see a complete roundup of them on our Instagram. We featured them all this past summer with some fun details about each.