WATERTOWN — Let’s get this part out of the way: Those familiar single-serving snack cakes like Twinkies and Devil Dogs aren’t going to win any nutrition awards. They typically contain dozens of ingredients, with things like partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, palm oil, artificial flavorings, and multiple kinds of sugar. In an era of health appeals and educated consumers, snack food marketers have a single mission. They stress fun, togetherness, smiles, and nostalgia.
Individual snack cakes got a lot of attention when Hostess Brands Inc. (which also owned Drake’s) filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The company was divvied up, sold off, and when the popular snacks went off shelves, there was an Internet groundswell to save the Twinkie. In the year since, who-owns-what in the snack industry has changed and consolidated. Twinkies and the iconic chocolate cupcakes with white squiggles came back in July and the latest news is that McKee Foods Corp. of Collegedale, Tenn., which owns Little Debbie, now also owns Drake’s. This week, McKee put an array of confections that had not been produced in recent months, back on shelves. That includes Yodels, Coffee Cakes, Devil Dogs, and Ring Dings.
It was time to have some fun. We gathered six adults and eight children at Arsenal Park for a casual tasting of snack cakes. They nibbled on slices of Hostess CupCakes and Twinkies, Drake’s Coffee Cakes and Devil Dogs, and Little Debbie Swiss Rolls and Oatmeal Pies. We threw in a ringer: a Whoopie pie from the local baker, Concord Teacakes in Concord. While the adults howled with nostalgic laughter, their kids were surprisingly quiet and approached the cakes with some skepticism.
Don’t these kids love sugar? Parent Michelle Munroe explained, “The kids are not used to eating such sweet things.” They were not clamoring for them. Most kids found them too sugary and too creamy. The moms, on the other hand, grew up on these snacks. But on this day, they tasted different. One typical comment, this about Drake’s Devil Dogs, was, “This can’t be the same thing I used to have.”
Tastes do change, but snack cakes, many made since the early part of the last century, are big business. Some companies started as small family bakeries and, over the years, were absorbed by larger companies.
Most famous for its Twinkies, the tube-shaped golden sponge cake with cream filling, Hostess Brands also owned a number of other commercial bakery firms, including Drake’s, famous for Devil Dogs and Ring Dings, devil’s food-like cakes made with cocoa. When Hostess Brands went bankrupt, Apollo Global Management of New York and C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. of Greenwich, Conn., purchased some of the Hostess snacks and their bakeries, and Drake’s was bought by McKee Foods, who already made Little Debbie snack cakes.
The new owners understand that for many, these snacks evoke strong memories of childhood school lunches and teen munchies. According to McKee Foods spokesman Mike Gloekler, “We will be making the cakes exactly the same as people remember. Nostalgia plays a role with Drake's brands. Half the consumers have no children.” Their target, he explains, is “the household grocery decision maker, usually a 30- to 45-year-old woman. We don’t market to children.” Little Debbie brand has a series of TV commercials called the “Little Debbie Kid in You,” showing adults with their younger selves urging their adult personae to indulge because, “your love for Little Debbie is something you never outgrow.”
In our tasting, the hands-down winner among the adults was Drake’s Coffee Cakes, miniature round vanilla cakes with a cinnamon-streusel topping. “I’m so surprised my favorite wasn’t chocolate,” said Julie Russo. Drake’s Coffee Cakes and Hostess CupCakes won stars from the kids, who gave frowny faces to the Twinkies. Taylar Chase, 14, grimaced and wrinkled her nose after a bite. Other Twinkie comments from the teen set: “Tastes like lemon and a cardboard box,” “way too sweet,” and “tastes gross.”
At area supermarkets, displays are full of products from a variety of companies that are mimicking one another, with different names but few customers. “This is me-too branding,” says Lauren Hartman of Snack Foods & Wholesale Bakery, an industry publication. “Kids are not the intended market for these nostalgic products as much as the adults. It’s about fun and indulgence.”
At the Shaw’s on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, however, Jon Marsh, 34, tossed a few twin packs of Hostess Twinkies into his shopping cart recently. “I was heartbroken when they went off the shelves. And when I heard they were coming back, I was counting the days,” he says. With him was Erica Fricke, 35, and children Kayla, 12, and Dominic, 6. “I like those cupcakes,” chimes in Kayla pointing to the box of Hostess. “People say they are full of sugar, but my kids are so active and play all kinds of sports. It’s not making them fat,” says Fricke.
“I want them to taste a little bit of history,” says Marsh, laughing.
“He’s still a kid at heart,” counters Fricke.