Hostess died a long time ago — a little perspective

Hostess died a long time ago — a little perspective November 17, 2012

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.

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