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An avid cyclist conceived the Clif Bar when he couldn't 'choke down one more' PowerBar.

Magazine ads purchased by Kali's SportNaturals Inc. (#253) portray star athletes--U.S. champion miler Regina Jacobs is one--as converts to its Clif Bar. "OK, I admit it," says a blurb attributed to Jacobs. "I used to eat PowerBars. Then I tried my first Clif Bar."

Kali's is seeking to piggyback on the best-selling PowerBar, which Olympic marathoner Brian Maxwell began marketing in 1986 as the high-performance athlete's alternative to a candy bar. Kali's unveiled the Clif Bar six years later as the taste-conscious athlete's alternative to the PowerBar. The company has been sounding an implicit appeal for converts ever since.

With the new ad campaign, the appeal is explicit.

Cofounder Gary Erickson, 40, is an avid cyclist and--of course--a convert himself. In the mid-1980s he and a friend, Lisa Thomas, 41, had a small business in Berkeley, Calif., baking all-natural Greek-style calzones and cookies and peddling them to coffee shops and groceries. The original company name, Kali's Sweets & Savories, honored Gary's grandmother, Kalliope, whose recipes had inspired them.

One hot day in 1989 Erickson and a buddy embarked on a fateful 175-mile bicycling trek around the San Francisco Bay area. For food they relied on PowerBars, which had quickly become de rigueur among avid California cyclists. Indeed, Maxwell's company, Powerfood Inc. (#22 on the 1992 Inc. 500), also based in Berkeley, was flourishing.

On his ride, Erickson recalls, he chowed down five PowerBars. "Then just came this moment where I said, 'That's it. I can't do this anymore. I can't choke down one more," he says. And he remembers turning to his friend and saying, "Man, we can make an energy bar. You know, we've got a bakery."

By then PowerBar's astonishing success in defining a new food category had drawn a host of copycats. Erickson determined that Clif Bar would follow PowerBar's lead without copying it. "Our goal," he says, "was to come out with something that was 180 degrees different from what PowerBar was doing."

Over the next few months Erickson and Thomas worked to devise a recipe for a better-tasting, more-chewable version and to add a strategic marketing twist. Their breakthrough: imbuing the Clif Bar with an "all-natural" aura.

Kali's stressed that its energy bar contained only natural ingredients. Its first ad, for example, castigated PowerBar for containing "refined sugar and highly processed food." The ad proclaimed, "It's your body. You decide."

The point is nutritionally immaterial, retorts Brian Maxwell, who extols the PowerBar as superior in vitamins and minerals. "They're not an energy bar," he says of Clif Bar. "Basically, they're a natural cookie."

Kali's and Powerfood have dueled on the flavor front as well, concocting tastes like Real Berry (Kali's) and Wild Berry (Powerfood's), and they have diversified beyond energy bars into carbohydrate-rich goo packaged in toothpastelike tubes for athletes on the go. Still, Kali's produces nothing without the words "natural energy" imprinted on its packaging, close to the Clif Bar trademark. (The bar was named for Gary's father.)

This year the company's sales are projected to hit $22 million, still a small fraction of Powerfood's revenues, which will "exceed" $50 million, Maxwell says. Erickson describes himself as "breathing down" Maxwell's neck. But the only breath Maxwell admits to feeling is that of jumbo Mars Inc., which this year is blitzing the market with an energy entry of its own, the VO2 Max.