Posted: December 01, 2012

Business as usual: Twinkies’ last stand

Mike Taylor

It’s hard to say whether the demand was driven by nostalgia or sugar cravings, but the announcement by Hostess in mid-November that it was going out of business set off a wave of panic buying usually only seen when Apple unveils another gadget or Wal-Mart opens its doors on Black Friday.

Given this fresh material to work with, cartoonists had a field day, with images that included eight men dressed in black lifting a casket-sized Twinkie into a hearse; a Twinkie headstone with the inscription "R.I.P. , 1930-2012; and a likeness of Stonehenge made of giant Twinkies.

Never mind that Hostess’ most-loved brands – Twinkies, Suzy Q’s, Ding Dongs, Zingers, fruit pies – are likely to be snapped up by another manufacturer. The company said buyers interested in some of its brands have already surfaced after Hostess failed to emerge from its second Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in less than a decade.

The people who flocked to the Hostess Outlet Store off Interstate 25 and 62nd Avenue in Denver weren’t leaving that to chance as they stocked up on snack cakes, cookies, fruit pies, "Classic White" Wonder Bread and other items. And boy, did they stock up.

I arrived at the outlet store around 11 a.m. on a Saturday, Nov. 17, the day after the announcement of Hostess’ demise. A sign indicating more prosperous times still hung on a chain-link fence surrounding the parking lot: "Now hiring. Apply at hostessbrands.com."

I took a spot in the line that already snaked around the store aisles and out the door. Behind me, a large man dressed in jeans, a denim shirt and a hat that said "Harrington Industrial Plastics" was filling his shopping cart: nine boxes of chocolate Zingers and 12 loaves of Home Pride bread so far, and he was just getting started.

The man, Mike Collins, 49, said he had driven about 35 miles from Johnstown, near Loveland, to stock up.

"Are you feeding an army?" asked a woman a few spots ahead in line.

"Close," Collins said. "Two families’ worth. I’m loading up for my mom and dad, too."

"Do you think they have any Twinkies left?" I asked, striking up a conversation with Collins.

"I doubt it," he said. "It looks pretty grim. An American icon, gone." We both nodded our heads but quickly agreed that the golden sponge cakes would likely return at some point, produced by someone else.

What won’t return are the estimated 18,500 Hostess jobs nationwide, including about 160 in Denver. The company’s demise was attributed to its inability to reach a compromise with unions, the cost of funding employees’ retirements, and tastes for snack foods trending toward healthier options.

Not wanting to be strictly a loiterer as I chatted with Collins and other customers, I picked up a box each of chocolate Zingers and chocolate creme-filled Twinkies (the traditional Twinkies with the white filling were long gone) and counted more than 30 ingredients in both those snacks, with at least half the ingredients unpronounceable.

But that had had no bearing on business this day at the Hostess Outlet Store. Ahead and behind me in the line, customers were filling their shopping carts to the brim with Suzy Q’s, Wonder Bread, pink Sno Balls, chocolate Donettes, Ding Dongs, Honey Buns and Zingers.

"It’s funny how everybody has one thing they really like and they’re so used to being able to get it, and now when maybe they can’t, panic ensues," said Collins, whose Hostess favorite, a snack called "Chocodiles" was long gone at this outlet store.

Finally after about half an hour, I advanced to the cashier where a woman wearing a Silverton T shirt rang up my modest purchase. Next to her, a woman with a name tag that said "Jackie" was bagging up customers’ goods.

"Is this the busiest you’ve ever seen it?" I asked.

"No, yesterday was a lot busier," Jackie said. "The line was out the door and around the corner."

I asked the woman in the Silverton T shirt about the hardship caused by Hostess shutting down. "I’ve only worked here four months. It’s these people my heart bleeds for," she said, motioning to Jackie and another woman who had worked for Hostess for 25 and 30 years, respectively.

As for Hostess products, she said, "They won’t go away. They’ll liquidate, and somebody will bring them back."

I got home and stuck the Twinkies and Zingers in my freezer, though of course, according to Twinkies legend, they could endure forever at room temperature. Let’s hope whoever picks up the Twinkies mantle doesn’t pamper with the 30-some ingredients.

Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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