NEW YORK – Twinkies may not last forever after all.
Hostess Brands Inc., the maker of the spongy snack with a mysterious cream filling, said Friday it would shutter after years of struggling with management turmoil, rising labor costs and the ever-changing tastes of Americans even as its pantry of sugary cakes seemed suspended in time.
Some beloved Hostess brands such as Ding Dongs and Ho Ho’s likely will be snapped up by buyers and find a second life, but for now the company says its snack cakes should be on shelves for another week or so. The news stoked an outpouring of nostalgia around kitchen tables, water coolers and online as people relived childhood memories of their favorite Hostess goodies.
Customer streamed into the Wonder Hostess Bakery Outlet in a strip mall in Indianapolis Friday afternoon after they heard about the company’s demise. Charles Selke, 42, pulled a pack of Zingers raspberry-flavored dessert cakes out of a plastic bag stuffed with treats as he left the store.
“How do these just disappear from your life?” he asked. “That’s just not right, man. I’m loyal. I love these things, and I’m diabetic.”
After hearing the news on the radio Friday morning, Samantha Caldwell, of Chicago, took a detour on her way to work to stop at a CVS store for a package of Twinkies to have with her morning tea and got one for her 4-year-old son as well.
“This way he can say, ‘I had one of those,’ ” said Caldwell, 41.
It’s a sober end for a storied name. Hostess, whose roster of brands dates as far back as 1888, hadn’t invested heavily in marketing or innovation in recent years as it struggled with debt and management changes.
As larger competitors inundated supermarket shelves with an array of new snacks and variations on popular brands, Hostess cakes seemed caught in a bygone time. The company took small stabs at keeping up with Americans’ movement toward healthier foods, such as the introduction of its 100-calorie packs of cupcakes.
But the efforts did little to change its image as a purveyor of empty calories with a seemingly unlimited shelf life: Twinkies, for instance, have 150 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. A Ding Dong chocolate cake with filling has 368 calories and 19.4 grams of fat.
Recently, Hostess lost ground with customers. Sales of Twinkies slipped 0.8 percent, Ding Dongs fell 8.7 percent and Ho Hos tumbled 6.3 percent from May 2011 to May 2012, according to analysis from research group Mintel.
The company ceded its top position in the prepared cupcakes and brownies segment to McKee Foods, whose sales increased 1.8 percent, largely on the strength of its Little Debbie brand. Smaller rivals such as Bimbo Bakeries and Give and Go also poached customers from Hostess, as have private-label offerings from grocery stores, according to Mintel.
And Americans’ appetite for junk food has been waning, as they increasingly look for healthful options with reduced fat, lower calorie counts and no sugar. Baby boomers and seniors, the demographics least likely to eat Hostess-style products, are growing in number, according to Mintel.
Hostess’ problems ran far deeper than changing tastes, however. In January, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time in less than a decade. Its predecessor company, Interstate Bakeries, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004 and changed its name to Hostess after emerging in 2009.
Hostess, based in Irving, Texas, said it was saddled with costs related to its unionized workforce. The company had been contributing $100 million a year in pension costs for workers; the new contract offer would’ve slashed that to $25 million a year, in addition to wage cuts and a 17 percent reduction in health benefits.
Management missteps were another problem. Hostess came under fire this spring after it was revealed that nearly a dozen executives received pay hikes of up to 80 percent last year even as the company was struggling. Although some of those executives later agreed to reduced salaries, others – including former CEO Brian Driscoll – had left the company by the time the pay hikes came to light.
Then, last week, thousands of members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union went on strike after rejecting the company’s latest contract offer. The bakers union represents about 30 percent of the company’s workforce.
By that time, the company had reached a contract agreement with its largest union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which this week urged the bakery union to hold a secret ballot on whether to continue striking. Although many bakery workers decided to cross picket lines this week, Hostess said it wasn’t enough to keep operations at normal levels.
The company filed a motion to liquidate Friday with U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The shuttering means the loss of about 18,500 jobs. Hostess said employees at its 33 factories were sent home and operations suspended. Its roughly 500 bakery outlet stores will stay open for several days to sell remaining products.
In a statement, the bakery union said Hostess failed because the six management teams over the past eight years weren’t able to make it profitable – not because workers didn’t make concessions.
“Despite a commitment from the company after the first bankruptcy that the resources derived from the workers’ concessions would be plowed back into the company, this never materialized,” the union said.