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The invaders arrived quietly, about a year ago. You probably didn’t notice them. But then, if you knew where to look – in the Schnucks bakery department, nestled amidst the processed sugary snacks by Entenmann’s, Little Debbie, and Hostess -- there they were: the Tastykakes.
If you’re from Philadelphia or that general area, you know Tastykakes – the Butterscotch Krimpets, Chocolate Juniors, Kreamies, cupcakes, fruit pies, etc. If you’re from the Lou, you’re probably a Hostess person, and you may have never heard of them.
But much as InBev drank down all of Anheuser-Busch in one gloriously sickening quaff, Flowers Foods, a baking conglomerate (they also own brands such as Nature's Own, Mrs. Freshley's, Bunny Bread, ButterKrust, Country Hearth, Holsum, and Roman Meal) headquartered in Thomasville, Georgia, inhaled the struggling, hundred-year-old Tastykake brand a year ago this month.
Shortly thereafter, Tastykake’s Krimpets and Kreamies began to dot the shelves of grocery stores far removed from Philly, including about 20 stores in our area, explained Kevin McFadden, Bakery Category Manager for all the Schnucks groceries. (You can also find them at some area Target stores.)
Who decides what gets pride of place in the grocery store? In other words, what does it take to get your product featured on an endcap? Or in a point-of-purchase display? Surely you’d want your products offered at eye level on the shelves, if possible. McFadden answered that “they all reside in the same general location, but who gets ‘first position in the line-up’ is dependent upon how they perform in the store.”
Regardless, it can’t be easy for Tastykake to penetrate a “Twinkie town” like St. Louis.
Take Doug Stuhlmann. The owner of St. Louis Vendors has considered stocking his local vending machines with Tastykake products, he said, but in the end declined to carry them. “It wasn’t a brand that people could identify with here,” said Stuhlmann. “In Philadelphia I could sell them all day, but here, even Little Debbie has a better brand identity.”
McFadden would seem to sympathize. “If you grew up with Tastykakes you’re probably a fan,” he said. “If you’re from the Midwest, you’re probably a Hostess person.”
Indeed, Twinkie-maker Hostess was founded in Kansas City and headquartered there for many years. That’s right – the Chocodile was invented right here in Missouri. So be proud! And ashamed! Both are appropriate feelings!
And now, a word from Josh Tamarin. The marketing analyst for the Philadelphia and Mid-Atlantic states markets at Tasty Baking Co. would like you to forgo your Ho Ho and give a Tastykake a shot. Tamarin explained that Tastykake “was a regional brand for almost one-hundred years, up until last year. Now, with our being purchased by Flower Foods, we’re just starting various expansion and promotional programs.”
Selling Tastykakes in St. Louis might be akin to the challenge of selling toasted ravioli in Philadelphia. Just spotting Krimpets at Schnucks, for those in the know, is practically like finding an In-N-Out Burger in Paris. Bewilderment ensues. But back in Philly, Tastykakes are practically in the residents’ DNA.
Tastykakes enjoys an unusually intimate relationship with the Philadelphia baseball and hockey teams. The late Phillies announcer Harry Kalas used to crow that a box of Tastykakes had been delivered to the booth between innings (not unlike Mike Shannon and his frosty, cold Busch?), and a case of Tastykakes is gifted to a Flyer every time he scores a goal (it’s usually donated to his favorite charity).
St. Louisan Dennis Kane gets it. He grew up in Philly, and actually worked in the Tastykake factory in the late ‘70s, while a college student.
“Every night at about 10 they started baking the apples on the sixth floor, and they would fire them down a chute to the fifth floor,” he said. “They’d cool them in huge trays and the aroma of the apples would fill the entire plant. It was a great smell.”
That’s quite a memory, I’m sure, but OMG! He worked in the Tastykake factory??!!
Allow me to be completely self-indulgent here for a moment. This is a weird confession, but here goes: I have an irreversibly powerful fascination with the place where the rejected Twinkies go. I’m talking about Twinkies that are pulled off the conveyor because they look funny -- underbaked, oozy cream filling, or simply mashed by a robotic arm, as in Twinkie roadkill. I’d rather not fully address a bizarre incident that took place when my elementary-school class toured the Hostess plant on North Broadway, so let’s just say a vat of rejected Twinkies notched a perverse variation on Proust’s “madeleine moment” in my temporal lobe, and many years later, as a quasi-functioning adult, I know I’ll never really be free of the near-erotic pull of the deformed Twinkies.
Which, erm, brings us to the Tastykake factory.
Tell me, please, Dennis, did you come to know the place where the misfit cakes go?
“Yeah,” he said, “all that stuff went to pig farms. But there were lots of boxes of mislabeled food that employees could take, too.”
Wow. The mind reels. Who is the pig in this scenario? The Tastykake employee taking home a box of cream-filled cakes every night, or the… actual pig?
Regardless, over at the Hostess factory, it’s not all cream filling and roses these days.
Hostess Brands, Inc. may be the largest wholesale baker and distributor of fresh bakery products in the US (they own the Hostess, Wonder Bread, Nature's Pride, Dolly Madison, Butternut Breads, and Drake's brands, among others), but their ship is sinking like a lead Ding Dong.
As you may have heard, Hostess recently declared bankruptcy – again – earlier this year. Now the employees are threatening to strike, too ).
Can you imagine a world without Twinkies? Do you really want to live in that world?? (I’m sure Tastykake does.)
And we haven’t yet acknowledged the elephant in the room. Snow Balls and Kandy Kakes (at left) are engineered to taste great, but what’s inside of them is the stuff that makes a Slow Foodie do a slow burn.
Tastykake’s Cream Filled Koffee Kake Cupcakes, for instance, contain sugar-bleached enriched flour, high fructose corn syrup, the dreaded trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and other noteworthy villains.
Is it any wonder, that in this world, slowly changing at the hands of the Michael Pollans and Eric Schlossers among us, that processed sugar-bombs are falling out of lunchboxes in favor of organic bananas and, for the children of Brooklynites, galettes of Emmenthaler cheese, arugula, and wine-poached figs? And is it really so surprising that Tastykake and Hostess are struggling in a nation finally waking up to its diabetes and attendant health-care epidemics?
Still, there must always be a place for small, infrequent indulgence. The occasional cupcake gives us not just sucrose, but succor.
And historically insensitive comedy, even.
Every year on Bastille Day (July 14), at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, costumed French revolutionaries throw 2,000 Tastykakes from a tower to a mewling horde of Philadelphians waiting below. “If the people have no bread,” yells the latter-day dissident, “I say, let them eat Tastykake!”
And, for a brief moment in time, let St. Louisans eat Tastykake. Let us sample these alt-Twinkies from a strange and far-off land. Let the secrets of Coconut Juniors and even seasonal Kreepy Kakes, mayhaps, be revealed on our questing lips.
And then, let us walk on, wiser, chastened, and quite possibly a little hyper.
And then, let us eat deformed hot dogs.
To watch a hypnotic video of Tastykakes being made in the Philadelphia factory, click here.