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With Hostess closing, gold rush is on for endangered Twinkies

A Hostess store’s shelves in Malden were nearly stripped bare on Friday.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

A Hostess store’s shelves in Malden were nearly stripped bare on Friday.

Anna Rice was depressed. David Mulligan called it “terrible.” And Meghan Casagrande worried her young daughter might never get to taste an American snack staple that made its way into generations of lunchboxes, inspired a legal defense, and is fabled to last forever.

Like many others, they came out Friday to buy and pay tribute to Twinkies, the cream-filled golden sponge cakes that date to 1930, emptying store shelves here and across the country. The run was prompted by the news that Hostess Brands — which also makes Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread, among many other products — was shutting down for good after a financially crippling labor dispute.

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“She’s never had a Twinkie,” Casagrande said of her daughter, Caileigh, who is nearly 2. “I can’t wrap my head around it. It was always in lunchboxes, and I was a teacher. They’ve always been there.”

Casagrande was at the Wonder Hostess Bakery Outlet in Braintree, which ran out of Twinkies before she could buy any. A similar scene played out at the Hostess outlet in Malden, and area supermarkets and convenience stores also reported runs on Twinkies, Devil Dogs, and Ring Dings.

About 18,500 workers nationwide — including nearly 300 in Massachusetts — will lose their jobs because of the company’s liquidation. And even though there were reports Friday that potential buyers are preparing bids for Hostess Brands, many people who grew up on these comfort foods feared they would never be the same again.

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“We were debating that on Facebook this morning,” said Anna Rice, 23, a nursing assistant. “It’s not going to be the same as the real thing.”

Adrienne Vincent, 52, of Braintree, was already feeling nostalgic about her favorite Hostess snack — Devil Dogs — and feared it might bring her to tears. She recalled climbing out of the family swimming pool as a child to be greeted by her mom with the chocolate cake sandwiches, shaped like a hot dog bun, with a creamy filling.

“I love those,” Vincent said. “Those are yummy.”

Hostess Brands has struggled for years with slowing sales, growing competition, and changing tastes in a country where schools are banning junk food, McDonald’s is offering apple slices, and New York City’s mayor is trying to outlaw supersized sodas. The Texas-based chain, which has $2.5 billion in estimated annual sales, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year and decided to shut down after a strike paralyzed operations.

“We deeply regret taking this action. But we simply cannot continue to operate without the ability to produce or deliver our products,” Hostess chief executive Gregory F. Rayburn wrote in a letter to employees.

Hostess Brands is among the nation’s largest providers of fresh-baked bread and sweet goods with well-known brands like Drake’s (maker of Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles, and Ring Dings), Wonder Bread, and its namesake Hostess (maker of Ho Ho’s, Sno Balls, and Ding Dongs).

Twinkies, invented in 1930 by James Alexander Dewar, have always been the darling of Hostess Brands and became a cultural touchstone, showing up in movies, television shows, deep fried in chef’s kitchens, and even in court. The so-called Twinkie defense was coined during Dan White’s trial for the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, when lawyers argued he suffered from depression as evidenced by his consumption of Twinkies and junk food.

Woody Harrelson spent an entire movie hunting for the last Twinkie in the 2009 flick “Zombieland.” After a Y2K meltdown, Peter Griffin in the television show “Family Guy” ate all the family’s dehydrated meals and then traveled to a Twinkie factory in Natick in search of the confection.

Some have claimed the golden cake could last forever because of its chemical makeup, and a Maine teacher once kept a Twinkie in his classroom for 30 years. (Hostess contends the treat technically has a shelf life of 25 days.)

Despite the challenges the Twinkie faces, the golden sponge cake, along with many of its sister snacks, will undoubtedly survive, according to Ron Paul, chief executive at Technomic Inc., a market research firm in Chicago. But, he said, a new owner may choose to manufacture offshore to keep down labor costs. He expects to see rivals including Kraft, Mars, and Nestle make a bid for Hostess’s assets.

“There [are] still potential jewels here that can be rejuvenated,” Paul said. “It’s so much easier to have an existing brand than to start a new brand from scratch.”

Even if Twinkies and other Hostess baked goods get a new lease on life, it’s probable there will be a shortage before any acquisition is completed now that factories have shut down. The mere possibility that these snacks could disappear spurred widespread hoarding. Hostess lovers mourned, while demanding government intervention, divine intervention — anything to save the beloved brand.

Mulligan, an electronics and appliance repairman, stocked up on Hostess goods and lamented the loss of an American treasure and all of those jobs. As he looked on at the employees at the Braintree Hostess outlet, he said, “This beautiful lady here, she’s losing her job, and she’s keeping a smile on her face.”

Erin Calvo-Bacci, owner of Chocolate Truffle in Reading, is closely guarding her six cases of Twinkies and stopping the wholesale business of her popular chocolate-dipped Twinkies (plain drizzle, $2.98; with M&Ms $3.50).

She still plans to honor a Thanksgiving promotion she had planned — a generous offer in these tight Twinkie times — of buy-one-get-one-free.

“I don’t want to gouge anyone,” Calvo-Bacci said. “I’ve just been ranting and raving all morning on the loss of the Twinkie. I don’t know what I’ll use instead.”

Dan Andelman, executive producer and host of the “Phantom Gourmet” television show, said the Twinkie crisis requires federal attention.

“If the government is going to bail out banks and give all kinds of breaks to oil companies, I’m all for the American government propping up the snack industry,” Andelman said. “Twinkies are an iconic American product. I don’t want to see China take this one away as well.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.
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