For a while there, you probably stopped buying Twinkies. And that’s because they disappeared for a while – not once but twice. The Twinkie story is sure to be studied in business classes (if it hasn’t been already). After all, one of the oldest and most iconic American stacks – with over 500 million made each year – simply vanished from the supermarket shelves back in 2013. So, how does an 83-year-old snack staple meet its fate if so many people were eating them?
Over the decades, Americans have been fascinated with the Twinkie. Think about it: How many snacks have been deconstructed, radiated, dissolved into liquid, dropped from a building, used as a defense in a murder trial, and even shot into space?
This is the story of America’s favorite cream-filled cake. Ladies and gentlemen, the Twinkie…
The name “Twinkie” was inspired by a billboard for “Twinkle Toe Shoes” near the bakery where the treats were originally created – the Continental Baking Company in Illinois. What isn’t clear, though, is if the shoes on the advertisement resembled the shape of the Twinkie or if the baker just liked the name and found it catchy.
Twinkies were first produced in 1930 as a way to use shortbread pans that were no longer in use. Since strawberries were out of season during the Twinkie’s inception, Canadian-born baker James Alexander Dewar created a banana cream-filled cake using all those small shortbread pans that were collecting dust, so to speak.
During World War II, banana imports came to a halt, and the company was forced to switch from banana to vanilla cream. Thus, the Twinkie as we know it today was born. Vanilla has been the dominant flavor for Twinkies ever since.
The banana flavor wasn’t widely re-introduced. Then, in 1988, Fruit and Cream Twinkies were put on the shelves, but the product was soon dropped. In 2005, the vanilla reign was challenged during a month-long promotion of the movie King Kong. Twinkie sales rose 20 percent, and by 2007 banana-cream Twinkies came back.
Speaking of King Kong, the Twinkie has been a major player in American pop culture…
In 1984, the Twinkie made international headlines (in countries that don’t even sell them) thanks to a reference in the hit film Ghostbusters. In the movie, the character Egon Spengler describes a level of psychokinetic energy and uses a Twinkie to represent the normal level of such energy.
The character Winston Zeddemore replies, “That’s a big Twinkie.” Then there was 1988’s Die Hard, which made light of Twinkie ingredients during a conversation between characters John McClane and Sgt. Al Powell. Non-’80s movies in which Twinkies made a cameo were 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and 2009’s Zombieland.
Twinkies are also popular when it comes to song lyrics. You might know of the song Junk Food Junkie, a Top 40 hit from 1976 by Larry Groce. Or what about John Fogerty’s 2004 album Deja Vu All Over Again with the song Nobody’s Here Anymore with the lyrics “He got a stash of Twinkies up in his room.”
Then there’s the 2013 song Habits (Stay High) by Swedish singer Tove Lo, who sings the line “I get home, I got the munchies / Binge on all my Twinkies / Throw up in the tub / Then I go to sleep.” The singer later admitted that she thought “twinkie” was a synonym for “cookie.” Hostess sent her a sample of the product after her song’s success.
Twinkies have been the nation’s favorite snack for almost a century now, weaving their way into American pop culture. In 1995, The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. project (Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes In Extreme Situations) was launched by scientists Christopher Scott Gouge and Todd William Stadler.
It was one of those fun scientific experiments – this one was designed to discover the scientific properties of Twinkies, including solubility, density, radio reactivity, and oxidation. These kinds of experiments and their results are, to this day, enjoyed by young scientists Twinkie and enthusiasts.
In 1999, former president Bill Clinton included Twinkies in the millennium time capsule – they were included as an icon of American food culture. It’s clear these little cakes mean something to us. They’re also widely speculated. Urban legends and rumors have been going around for years that Twinkies have a shelf life of many years, even decades. Is it true?
The long-held myth holds that Twinkies are made with all chemical ingredients, with no actual food products so that they can stay fresh for decades. Some people have claimed that the snack can survive a nuclear war (come on, now).
This urban legend was spread when this one science teacher in Maine kept a Twinkie atop his chalkboard for 30 years (gross). The Twinkie definitely turned brittle, but the teacher declared that the snack still appeared fresh and edible.
To add to the Twinkie Myth, there are those who claim that Twinkies are made with all chemical ingredients; some claim that Twinkies are not even actually baked. This rumor says that Twinkies are produced by a chemical action that causes the ingredients to foam when combined, and then they set.
The truth is that Twinkies contain real food; they are truly baked, and the official shelf life is “only” 25 days. Afterward, the Twinkie will stick around, but it weakens in taste and texture. Now, 25 days is a lot longer than other baked goods, but this is because they avoid the use of dairy products, and there’s an air-tight cellophane wrapper.
That cream you love so much? The vanilla cream filling is made with shortening, sugar, eggs, flavoring, and stabilizers. There are, of course, artificial ingredients, but the cakes are not 100% chemically comprised. So that myth is squashed.
Despite all these extreme urban legends, the Twinkie’s reputation seems to have gone unharmed. Twinkies have been used in some creative ways. Deep-fried Twinkies are a novelty food at state fairs and street food vendors. And the real enthusiasts make multi-tiered wedding cakes out of their favorite pastry.
Believe it or not, Twinkies have found their way into all kinds of other foods, like pie, sushi, and tiramisu. There’s even one man – a professor – who committed himself to the “Twinkie diet.” That’s right: He ate way too many Twinkies (and other “junk food”) …
In 2010, Mark Haub, a Kansas State University professor, went on a “convenience store” diet in which he ate mostly Twinkies, Oreos, and Doritos. Why? He was trying to demonstrate to his students “that in weight loss, pure calorie counting is what matters most, not the nutritional value of the food.”
Ironically, he lost 27 pounds over two months, and his body mass index (BMI) returned within the normal range. Haub also ate Little Debbie snack cakes, cereals, cookies, brownies, and other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods that are found at convenience stores. Despite calling it the “Twinkie diet,” the professor also consumed a multivitamin, protein shakes and fresh vegetables.
Well, eventually, the company that owns Twinkies, Hostess, filed for bankruptcy in 2012. And just like that, the Twinkie vanished from the shelves, leading to bidding wars between sugar junkies. In fact, people were selling boxes on eBay for $1,000 a pop.
Twinkies have gone through the wringer – two bankruptcies, heavy debts, and changing tastes – all pushing the cakes off the shelves to their near death. But luckily, Twinkies returned the following year when Hostess was purchased by Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. for a cool $410 million.
So, what happened?
James Dewar managed a bakery plant at the beginning of the Great Depression. He wanted to better use all those expensive strawberry shortcake trays and equipment. After putting the banana cream inside the cakes, he sold the Twinkies in packs of two for 5 cents.
During WWII, bananas started being rationed, and simple vanilla cream made its first appearance. Over the following two decades, Twinkies and its brand Hostess were dominating the packaged-cake market. They were being marketed to kids in TV commercials, Batman comics, and more. They were a staple in kids’ lunchboxes across America.
Twinkies quickly rose to be a cultural icon. In 1971, the brand introduced its mascot, Twinkie the Kid. The cowboy Twinkie was a hit among kids but growing talk of the high sugar content would soon become a problem for the brand’s kid-friendly marketing.
The Federal Trade Commission came down hard on Hostess for alleged false nutritional claims. The FTC concluded that the Twinkies’ main ingredient was sugar. By 1979, the trial of a man charged with murdering the San Francisco mayor gave rise to the term “Twinkie defense.” (More on this later.) It didn’t help Hostess’ case, that’s for sure.
“Fresh, wholesome Hostess meets my tough standards. So, when I say yes, it’s Hostess.”
A string of new owners was in line for becoming the snack’s new parent company. In the ’70s, telephone company ITT was Twinkies’ parent company. Then, in the ’80s, dog-food maker Purina bought out the company.
A decade later, the final owner took the reigns – Interstate Bakeries Corporation. This created the largest baking company in the country. At its peak, there were 58 factories, more than 10,000 delivery routes, a major boost in Twinkie sales, and $3.2 billion in total sales.
However, by the late ’90s, America’s changing tastes became a problem for the sugar-packed Twinkies. It was the beginning of a new era – one where low-carb diets were growing popular, like the Atkins and South Beach diets. Slowly but surely, Americans were becoming more health conscious.
High calories, high sugar, and preservatives that most of us can’t even pronounce meant that the Twinkie was becoming a casualty of the health revolution. Sure enough, sales dropped and pretty much flattened. By the end of 1998, in just one day, shares dropped 25%.
But it wasn’t just the product itself that caused trouble. Pensions and raw goods were getting more and more expensive. While other food companies were modernizing their manufacturing process, Hostess was falling behind, still running inefficient factories and operating at 54% capacity utilization.
The company was also relying on an outdated delivery system – DSD (direct-store-delivery). It means high costs as you have trucks, drivers, gas, and insurance to pay for. Furthermore, the deliveries were going out to every store in America every couple of days to drop off the product. The delivery alone ate up 36% of revenue.
When Bill Clinton put the Twinkie in the 1999 National Millennium Time Capsule, it proved that Twinkies still had a massive fan base. Still, the damage was done. By 2004, Interstate Bakeries Corporation was $700 billion in debt. And so, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
For the rest of the 2000s, Interstate cut 7,000 employees and shuttered eight factories. By the end of the decade, the company came out of bankruptcy and rebranded itself as Hostess Brands. It didn’t work, though.
The company took another hit – as did everyone else – when the recession began.
Year after year, Twinkie sales were down 20%. To make things even worse, a worker strike and labor dispute soon followed. Production soon stopped, and the management team threatened to shut the company down as pressure was coming from its creditors.
By January 2012, when Hostess Brands was about a billion dollars in debt, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy again. By November, Twinkies were pulled from shelves again, and the media had no issue reporting the death of Twinkies. Once again, Twinkie lovers were losing their minds. Even those who never even liked the snack suddenly wanted them. (You always want what you can’t have, right?)
The popular thought at the time was: “Well if they’re going away forever, I need to stock up.” The rush was on – every last Twinkie needed to be grabbed. People were scrambling to get the last packages off the store shelves.
“It was like the death of a piece of Americana,” Apollo Global’s Andy Jhawar stated. Jhawar and investor Dean Metropoulos were the two guys that have been credited as successfully putting Twinkies back in stores. But how did they do it, especially after Hostess laid off all its employees in December 2012?
Things were looking really bad for Hostess, but Jhawar still saw true value in the nostalgia attached to the cakes, as well as the brand itself. “It’s hard to kill a good brand,” he said. He explained that if you were to survey people ages 20 and over, “there’s 95% brand awareness.”
“It’s not every day that you can buy a brand like this, that’s ubiquitous in consumers’ mind and has leading market share, had a billion dollars in revenues, and an 80-year legacy.” After the second bankruptcy, Jhawar approached the legendary investor Dean Metropoulos about joining him in his mission to rescue Hostess.
Metropoulos had earned himself a serious reputation – he had already invested in successful companies like Bumble Bee tuna, Chef Boyardee, Vlasic pickles, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. In Jhawar’s eyes, he was perfect for the job.
But this second bankruptcy wasn’t “easy” to come out of like the first one. Now, what was left of Hostess was sold for parts. Instead of being forced to inherit the whole thing – the expensive delivery system, the underfunded pension plans, the old union contracts – Jhawar could pick and choose what he and Metropoulos actually wanted and forget the rest.
So, the Dream Team showed up to the “363 asset” sale with their boxing gloves on – they were ready to fight for Hostess. But once they were there, they saw that they were the only ones. “Anybody could’ve shown up and topped our bid,” Jhawar recalled, “and nobody showed up.”
He admitted to how surprised he was. The two guys ended up buying out Hostess for $410 million. From that sale, they got the Hostess brands, including Twinkie, recipes, and five factories – that’s it. Jhawar specified that there were no employees, no ingredients, no inventory.
He also described how “odd” it was to walk through completely empty plants, where the person who was walking him through the plant had to turn on the lights. The two new owners got to work right away. The first mode of action: the delivery system.
They transformed the old system into a distribution-to-warehouse model. Instead of taking the product to every grocery store in America, they were taken to Walmart’s or Kroger’s distribution centers to then be shipped out to various stores.
However, the thing was that if they wanted to move Twinkies through a warehouse, they were going to need to increase the product’s shelf life. Up until that point, Twinkies only lasted 25 days. Jhawar and Metropoulos invested millions in producing a Twinkie that tasted the same but lasted longer.
At first, they managed to get the shelf life to 45 days and finally to 65 days. It meant that the retailers were more comfortable taking the Twinkies into their warehouses, and more importantly, the product’s quality wouldn’t be compromised.
With the new recipe and warehouse-delivery model, delivery costs were reduced by 20%. Now, Hostess could affordably deliver Twinkies to dollar stores and drugstores – markets they were never able to reach before. In fact, Dollar General became one of its top five customers.
The Dream Team’s goal was to make $1 billion worth of cake yearly with only a ninth of the labor and a fifth of the factories. And finally, the duo worked on innovating the product line to produce smaller pack sizes and mini-Twinkies. But these products didn’t get much “resonance” in the marketplace, Jhawar explained.
“The world is a better place tonight because Twinkies are back.”
The team had to make all these massive changes in a matter of months. In a rather remarkable way, they managed to bring Twinkies back to life by July 2013. That quote above – that was stated by a news broadcaster who reported on the cakes’ comeback.
It went viral, and suddenly, the excitement and buzz of the Twinkie’s return was the biggest thing. Ironically, as Jhawar pointed out, it would never have happened if Twinkies never came off the shelf in the first place.
Now, Twinkies couldn’t be found on any shelves across America – and not because they were going out of business; the cakes were being sold like hotcakes. During the duo’s first year, they made $555 million in revenues… from nothing… with profit margins of 27%.
This is a company that lost money and went bankrupt twice. Impressive would be an understatement. By 2015, 1 million Twinkies were being made a day, 400 million a year, and $180 million in profit. 80% of the product output was from Twinkies alone. The gamble and hard work had paid off.
The pandemic has actually helped Hostess (if you were wondering), and it’s because Americans bought more food, especially processed foods. Hostess realizes that they need to diversify, which is why variations on the Twinkie have been made, like Twinkies Cereal, which was introduced in 2020.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, there’s one main ingredient of Twinkies that basically saved its life: nostalgia. “It’ll always have a special place in my heart and my stomach,” Jhawar said.
Now, who here remembers the whole Twinkie Defense thing? If you’re curious, this is the story…
The phrase “The devil made me do it” is a known defense, right? Well, who knew that “Twinkies made me do it” would be a popular plea, too? Believe it or not, arguments like these are still made in criminal cases today, and it’s all thanks to the first guy who claimed it: Dan White.
The phrase “Twinkie Defense” was coined in 1978 by the media during the trial of Dan White. He was being charged with shooting to death the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
The thing is, though, is that the Twinkie Defense is a myth.
The defense presented evidence that White was suffering from mental illness, including depression. An actual psychiatrist testified that White’s excessive junk food consumption — including Twinkies — made his symptoms worse. It was “proof” of his depressed state.
The defense, however, never claimed that eating the snack cakes put White in a sugar-induced rampage that drove him to murder Moscone and Milk. In reality, it was the media that pushed the controversial and entertaining angle. The real defense made in the trial was that White suffered from “diminished capacity” and had acted “in the heat of passion.”
The jury bought this argument and, instead of murder, they ultimately convicted White of voluntary manslaughter. It sounds insane, but it’s a true story. Sometimes, catchy phrases stick around, whether they mean anything or not. And that’s what happened with the term Twinkie Defense.
The term stuck in the public’s imagination and the media’s vocabulary. The phrase is basically used as a nickname for any time the accused party blames the consumption or use of some substance for his or her actions. Since its inception in 1978, variations of the Twinkie Defense continue to be made, expanding beyond junk food.
In the mid-‘00s, Matthew Phelps, a wannabe pastor in North Carolina, was accused of stabbing his wife to death. He claimed that he woke up to find her covered in blood but couldn’t remember what happened. Phelps does believe that he was the one who attacked his wife, but he argued that his cough medicine made him black out.
In 2017, Phelps was finally indicted on first-degree murder charges. Blaming cough medicine is actually a popular version of the Twinkie Defense. In 2011, Dr. Louis Chen (a doctor!) was accused of killing his partner and their two-year-old son. His defense: a cough-syrup-induced psychosis (he eventually pleaded guilty.)
Also in 2011, a man named James McVay broke into the home of a woman named Maybelle Schein and stabbed her to death. Although he pleaded guilty, he claimed to be mentally ill. His lawyers said that the night before the murder, McVay combined alcohol with cough syrup, causing him to suffer hallucinations.
The defense also claimed that McVay suffered from mental illness along with alcohol and drug abuse issues. He was sentenced to the death penalty, but McVay committed suicide in 2014. These cases, as outrageous as they may seem, are surprisingly common.
Modern versions of the Twinkie Defense aren’t just limited to cough medicine. Washington resident and bus driver Kenneth Sands argued that consuming too much caffeine is what compelled him to sexually molest five women.
Already suffering from bipolar disorder, all that caffeine led to a psychotic episode, driving him to act out of character. This defense is even more ridiculous than the cough syrup one, but it actually worked! He was sentenced to five months in prison. Just imagine how all those women and their families felt when they heard that verdict…