Hostess died a long time ago — a little perspective

Hostess Twinkies

My mother used to tell me how, as a kid, she knew she was from a poor family because the sandwiches she brought to lunch at school were made with homemade whole wheat bread. The richer city kids had nice store-bought white bread. Hostess’s Wonder Bread and all its processed preserved pasteurized pastries were signs of progress and prosperity.

Bemoaning the loss of Twinkies reminds me of when a local store closes and everyone is mourning the loss of a family business. But then no one can remember the last time they were in the store. This is kind of the reverse. I grew up on Hostess and Pepperidge Farm and Drakes. Now on the rare occasions I buy a baked dessert, it’s at a local shop or the farmer’s market. And that’s a good thing.

Hostess Wonder Bread

I feel the need to clarify two other things for all those worked up about the end of Twinkies. First of all, Twinkies will probably survive. (After all, they say they can survive a nuclear winter.) Hostess will be selling off the brands to other companies. Twinkies being one of the most popular, someone will buy it and keep making them. I assume Wonder Bread will be OK too, if anyone was asking. I’d be more worried about my favorite Hostess cake from childhood, the Suzy Q — two layers of devil’s food cake with vanilla frosting in the middle.

Second, for those suggesting that the union killed Hostess, or the recession (blamed either on Obama or Bush, depending on who’s talking), Hostess hasn’t been Hostess for a long time. It died in 1968, to be precise.

Hostess Suzy Q’s

That’s when the New York City-based family company that made Twinkies and the other dessert cakes as well as Wonder Bread, Continential Baking Company, was sold to ITT — perhaps the evilest conglomerate in history (implicated in helping build the Nazi military, in working with the CIA on the violent overthrows in Brazil and Chile, and in selling US military technology to China). A decade and a half later ITT sold it to Ralston Purina, the pet food and livestock feed company. A decade after that, Purina sold it off to a competing bread company, Interstate, in 1995.

Less than a decade after that, this merged company filed for bankruptcy, coming out of bankruptcy owned by a private equity firm (you know, like Romney’s Bain Capital), which fired 10,000 workers, as private equity firms do. The company filed for bankruptcy again this past January, almost a billion dollars in debt.

Hostess Ho Hos

Is it true that the bakers’ union went on strike while the company’s executives were warning that it could not survive such a strike? Yes. Was that a dumb move? Very possibly. It is also true that the executives gave themselves an 80 percent raise the year before, just before the bankruptcy, only to suspend it for one year after getting caught. It is also true that the demand for Wonder Bread and Twinkies has been declining for decades, replaced by a combination of healthier eating habits, lower bread consumption and a shift towards higher-end baked dessert products.

So the strike was perhaps the final straw. Or perhaps it was the excuse. The cause of Hostess’s demise is that no one really wants Twinkies and Wonder Bread anymore. Nor should they. I mourn the hardship the 18,500 employees of Hostess may experience from losing their jobs, though I imagine many will keep working, just for a new boss. But I do not mourn the loss of Hostess Brands. Even my old love, Suzy Q’s. I haven’t bought one in decades. And no one else should either. There are lots of online homemade Suzy Q recipes and the consensus on that frosting I loved as a child is that it’s mostly shortening.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Matthew Vincent

    Bain Capital had nothing to do with Hostess and the election is OVER.

    Including that irrelevant tid-bit is stupd.

    Why not include the name of the REAL private equity firm involved? Or is a little bit of journalism too hard? boo-hoo.

    • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

      Matthew, if you want to know, which I assume you don’t really, it’s Ripplewood Holdings. I already had done that “bit of journalism” but didn’t see its relevance. My goal was not to write a reporting piece. I’m a blogger/columnist, not a reporter. Should I have included the little zing about Bain? Maybe not. I guess I couldn’t resist. The point of my piece was that there were many causes of Hostess’s slide besides the unions. The main one was changing tastes. But the fact that they were taken over by a private equity firm which by its nature has the goal of maximizing profits for itself, not serving the public, is another factor.

  • Paulet Sharen

    I googled “twinkies” and just found your blog. Good research & writing. I will share your perspective. It seems right to mourn the loss of work for hard-working employees caught between a rock & a hard place. However, mourning a snack cake of questionable nutritional value seems well… oddly questionable in today’s world.

  • Willitts

    Let’s suppose that those evil bastards in senior management had not given themselves 80% pay raises or reimbursed the company the 2, 5, or 10 million dollars they attempted to loot from the sinking ship. Would Hostess still be a going concern? Not at all.

    The fact of the matter is that 18,500 employees earning an average of $43,000 per year is an $800 million price tag. And that’s not including benefits, taxes, insurance, and other employment expenses. So those 2, 5, or 10 million dollar golden parachutes don’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, do they?

    I can’t say that this CEO was worth $750,000 or $2.2 million per year. Many CEOs ARE worth far more than their paychecks. Plenty of economic research bears that out. You can’t take one of those line bakers and put him in a CEO chair and everything would work out great. Even if the employees bought the firm, who would they hire as CEO? Someone with experience who wanted $1 million per year or some such. And the employees would pay it.

    The better question is whether a baker in a mass production system is earning his $43,000 per year. Many of these jobs are so low skilled, a monkey could be trained to do it. One woman at the now defunct Miller Bottling plant was making $50,000 per year to load labels into a machine.

    So stop paying attention to the sock puppet that the unions are drawing your attention to. Yeah, the management team was a bunch of assholes. But they didn’t kill this company – the unions did.

    • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

      Willitts, thanks for your comment. You make some great points. And I never suggested that the high salaries and raises management got in the final years were a big factor. Perhaps I muddied my point by mentioning it, but I was clear that I wasn’t saying it was the cause. And I placed some of the blame on the union too.

      But your conclusion of blaming the unions doesn’t seem to follow from your own argument. It seems you make a good case that the company was simply not viable anymore. That makes it, ultimately, no more the union’s fault than management’s. I think your characterization that a “monkey could be trained to do” these jobs is wrong and mean-spirited, but the underlying fact that for mass consumer goods, Americans are not willing to pay the cost of producing them using American workers receiving wages that will support American families at plants that comply with safety and health regulations, is a much bigger issue. This is why politicians and economists keep talking about high-skilled and high-tech manufacturing jobs. No one seriously believes the post-war glory days when one unskilled assembly line worker could support a family of four are coming back.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/ VorJack

      “Yeah, the management team was a bunch of assholes. But they didn’t kill this company – the unions did.”

      At some point, the management has to take the blame for failing to make the company viable. As the OP pointed out, Hostess has been in trouble for some time. Yet most of the reports I’ve seen say that there have been no major attempts to redefine or rebrand Hostess. Continually failing as managers and then forcing your employees to make multiple sacrifices to make up for your failures is not a winning strategy.

      We keep getting sidetracked into these weird discussions of wage justice; is it right that someone doing X is earning more than me? As conservatives used to say, we’re in a free market, not a fair market. You’re labor is worth what you can convince someone to pay, what you deserve is not the question.

  • Cannon

    Hostess was a $3 billion company I believe? (or is, I should say, it’s not gone yet) Anyway, it begs the question why a $3 billion company selling cakes made out of the cheapest ingredients known to man? Some reports I’ve seen/heard about the union rules at Hostess were such that a driver was not allowed to load his own truck – one employee could not be used to load cake AND bread – one truck was not allowed to deliver all products to a store, thus requiring multiple trucks to deliver to the same store, and multiple employees loading the same truck.

    Willitts does make good points, but your rebuttal does not make sense. Hostess employees were asked to take a 8% paycut. That would leave the average worker (according to Willits’ stats) at approx $40k/year + benefits. A monkey could provide for a family with $40k – and, yes, that was mean spirited because I’m self-employed, I work 75 hrs a week and make about that, and my family is just fine! Tired of the looters!

  • http://bcbakes.blogspot.com/ Alex Templeton

    The Twinkie is not dead! The Golden Sponge Cake with Delicious Creamed Filling will surely be reanimated, with the Hostess bankruptcy team working up a stalking-horse bid with two holding companies for $400+ million(!).

    At any rate my weblog http://bcbakes.blogspot.com/ carries Essays on the Natural Philosophy of Postmodern Twinkies, including my increasingly successful reformulations of a NOT-winkie that is actually food, not 70% additives as in the originals.


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