If you’re anything like me, you’ve occasionally found yourself on Instagram, scrolling masochistically through photos of extremely fit people. Maybe you’ve noticed that these people seem to love, even worship, a certain brand of protein bars. Maybe you’ve looked at photos of these bars and asked yourself, is this food? Will it help me do a pull up? Why does it look like the tile grout in my bathroom?
This is the story of Quest, the protein bar that went from a side hustle to a billion-dollar company in under five years. It’s also a story about women, weights, and the terrifying power of Instagram to make and break a brand.
How it all began...
Ashley Hooman started her Instagram account when she was 13 and recovering from anorexia. It was 2010—Instagram was brand new—but Hooman discovered hundreds of other women who’d also battled eating disorders. She made friends with many of them, and the support they gave her pulled her through recovery. She noticed many of them were really into weightlifting. When Hooman was healthy enough to exercise again, she got a gym membership and picked up weightlifting too.
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The Quest bars started appearing in her feed in early 2013. Everyone was raving about how good they were, so she went to a nearby GNC and bought two. “The Chocolate Brownie was the first one I tried,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with them.”
By this point Hooman had an Instagram account dedicated to food and fitness, @nothingisimpossiblex, with thousands of followers. She started posting daily close-ups of her Quest bars, usually with nut butter slathered on top. The photos were getting 400-500 likes.
Hooman didn’t care that Quest bars were “clean”—free of added sugar and gluten-free, with a relatively short ingredient list. She just thought they tasted good. But a lot of other people cared. Most other bars on the market were calorie bombs full of unpronounceable ingredients. Quest had somehow produced a unicorn: a product that was both healthier and more edible than any other protein bar out there.
Behind the bars
“Everything else on the market was a candy bar in disguise,” said Tom Bilyeu, Quest’s president and co-founder. Bilyeu got his start in Silicon Valley and speaks like he’s giving a TED talk at all times. He calls Quest “a transformation company” and once kept an alarm in his phone that said “have the guts to be poor.”
Bilyeu ran a successful software company but sold it in 2010 to start Quest. “We were standing in this beautiful conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and I turned to my partners and I said, ‘I’m completely miserable.’ I had courage to say, ‘I’m going to make the demand in my life that I enjoy and believe in what I’m doing.’”
For Bilyeu, who grew up in a morbidly obese family in Tacoma, WA, that meant starting a company with the goal of ending metabolic diseases, like diabetes, that are linked to obesity. “All our products are designed from the standpoint of how they impact your blood panel,” Bilyeu said. Metabolic diseases like diabetes are thought to be caused by spikes in blood sugar.
For Quest that meant added sugar was a no-no, no matter how natural. The second goal was to make food that people would choose because it tasted good, not because it was better for you.
“Food is the center of our social lives and it has a drug-like quality that makes it so much fun. But that relationship quickly turns abusive,” he said. “I wanted to acknowledge the wonderful way it feels to sit around with your family and share in a gorgeous meal, but make it good for you.”
Most people don’t gather around a table with their loved ones to eat protein bars. Bilyeu started with bars to gain cred in the fitness and nutrition world. “If I’m overweight, I’m going to turn to someone who’s in shape and say, ‘What do you eat?’” he said. “We wanted the answer to that to be Quest.”
He and two partners started testing recipes for protein bars, rolling out the dough by hand with rolling pins and knives at night while still running the software company. None of them knew much about industrial cooking; there was a lot of trial and error. “We couldn’t even give the bars away back then because people were convinced that protein bars were just junk,” he said. But by 2011, they were getting an order or two a day. Then, Bilyeu says, “it went bonkers.”
After a few months of posting Quest bars and gaining followers, Hooman got Quest’s attention. A Quest employee commented on a photo she posted of a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough bar (known among fans as CCCD and the best-selling Quest bar of all time) asking for her shipping address. “For about a year after that I’d get boxes of bars every few months,” said Hooman. She got products to do giveaways on her Instagram page and new flavors before they were released.
How Quest grew in just five years
In the early years, sending people free bars was Quest’s biggest marketing strategy. The company targeted people with big followings on social media who were already very fit because, as Bilyeu said, “People with six packs are walking billboards.”
The company’s timing couldn’t have been better. The fitness industry was in the midst of a sea change: Women like Hooman were entering the weight room in droves, and they were talking about it on Instagram.
Women have always been Instagram’s power users, forming vast communities across the platform, and a lot of their interactions have to do with fitness, food, weight loss, or all three. You could argue that weight-lifting started trending because of Instagram. It was a place for women to share tips and bond outside of the testosterone zone of bodybuilding websites and their local gyms.
Trends spread like wildfire in this community, and Quest was one of the first and biggest. Before Quest, the dominant aesthetic in muscle-building products was what Bilyeu calls “veins and chains”—barbells and dudes with exploding muscles looking very intense. Quest’s packaging is gender neutral and brightly colored—giant cinnamon buns drip with icing and Oreos float on rivers of milk. It’s indulgent and decadent and women responded.
Quest was also one of the first companies to use social media to interact with people rather than to tell people to buy something—which is why you’ll probably never see a commercial for a Quest bar on TV.
The company created and popularized hashtags like #chunkporn and #cheatclean, sent free products for giveaways, and reposted people’s “quest creations.” The strategy worked. In its first three years, Quest grew by 57,000 percent. For a while, revenue was doubling from one month to the next.
I ate my first Quest bar in 2014, when I was writing about women who compete in bodybuilding competitions and trying to put on some muscle myself. The wet-cement texture was disconcerting at first, so was the fake-sugar taste.
But the bars kept me full for hours, and I believed the protein gospel that if I ate enough of it, my butt and biceps would finally emerge, glorious and fully formed. For a couple months, I was eating three or four Quest bars a week. (Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, and Double Chocolate Chunk were my go-tos with a White Chocolate Raspberry now and then.) Then I got tired of force-feeding myself protein and started eating what I wanted again.
By late 2014, Quest mania had hit a fever pitch. Jada Pinkett Smith was eating them. Demi Lovato was eating them. BuzzFeed offered 14 Signs You Are a Quest Bar Fanatic. If you followed any of the trendy fitness people on Instagram, you couldn’t scroll an inch without seeing a Quest bar, despite their being the least photogenic food product on earth—beige or nearly black, often with unidentifiable lumps and chunks. Hooman was eating two, sometimes three a day, funding her habit with a job at GNC, which gave her an employee discount. She discovered baking them so they’d get warm and gooey. She called her bars “bae” and used the heart-eye emoji a lot.
Other people were getting creative too, cooking with Quest bars and posting their #questcreations on Instagram.
One of them was Kim Capella. Capella had been overweight most of her life until she discovered that she loved to cook and bake healthy desserts. She lost over 60 pounds and created an Instagram, @pbeechie, and a blog, “The Coconut Diaries,” to showcase her recipes. She posted her first Quest bar recipe in 2013, a chocolate chip cookie dough “poptart,” and has made close to 100 Quest recipes since—including pancakes, mug cakes, and French toast. Her recipes were so popular that Quest flew her to Las Vegas for the Olympia, the biggest fitness expo in the country, and paid her to work at their booth.
“We had mutual adoration toward each other,” said Capella. “I always had this sense that I was part of the family.” When Quest was testing a line of protein powders, they hired Capella to create recipes that were printed on the containers.
And then, inevitably, came the backlash.
In October 2014, a health and wellness blogger named Ksenia Avdulova published a post on her website Breakfast Criminals titled, “Stay Clear Of Quest Bars (and Delicious Whole-Food Alternatives).” Avdulova isn’t a nutritionist, but she said she wrote the post based on her personal experience trying the bars.
“I kept seeing people on Instagram post Quest bars in their yoga clothes and their sexy abs,” she said. So she tried one. “I felt like I had a stone in my belly for the rest of the day.” Her post called out Quest bars for using highly-processed whey protein, a fiber called isomalto-oligosaccharides that can cause indigestion for some people, and sucralose, a fake sugar also sold as Splenda.
Within days, Avdulova’s post had gone viral. Hundreds of people commented and emailed. “So many people who are die-hard Quest bar fans have attacked me personally,” she said. One person told her that protein bars weren’t for “vegan little girls” like her.
The wellness and fitness industries have always been strange bedfellows, and Avdulova is clearly more in the wellness camp. Her website promotes “Nourishing your body with mindful movement and delicious healthy foods” as well as “Following your soul’s deepest desires.”
For people like her, Quest bars would never be considered healthy because ingredients like whey protein and sucralose are highly processed. “They have a dead taste to them,” as one commenter put it. On the other hand, people in the fitness camp, like Hooman, are typically less worried about ingredients and more concerned with the nutrition label—calories, fat, protein, and carbs.
Are Quest bars hear to stay?
In the last year, the tide has moved in Avdulova’s favor. Some of the alternative bars she recommended like Rise and GoMacro are drawing people from the fitness world, and new competitors are trying to do what Quest does but better. Bars like FitJoy and Good2Go have similar ingredients but their simple, clean packaging make Quest bars look dated.
Earlier this year, Hooman noticed that her Cookies and Cream Quest bar tasted different. Her customers at GNC told her the same thing, so she checked the label and realized the ingredients had changed. Soluble corn fiber had replaced isomalto-oligosaccharides, which people were saying gave the bars a different texture and a more artificial taste. She stopped eating Quest bars cold turkey and posted about her disappointment on Instagram along with hundreds of other people.