How Two Dudes Brought Twinkies Back to the Shelves

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?

Factory workers / Boxes of Twinkies / Twinkies / “I Saved The Twinkie” pins
Source: Getty Images

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…

Why Are They Called Twinkies Anyways?

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.

James Alexander Dewar is holding many packages of twinkies in his arms.
Source: NPR

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.

The Twinkie Is Born

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.

Two packages of Hostess Twinkies sit on a table.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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…

The Ghostbusters and Die-Hard Twinkie Cameos

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.

Harold Ramis, as Egon Spengler, holds up a twinkie in a still from ‘Ghostbusters’.
Source: YouTube

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.

The Twinkie Lyrics

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.”

A customer reaches out to take a twinkie.
Photo by Scott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes in Extreme Situations?

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.

Christopher Scott Gouge and Todd William Stadler are eating twinkies.
Source: Facebook

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.

Do Twinkies Expire?

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?

Hostess Twinkie snack cakes are on display at a store.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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).

The Twinkie Myth

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.

Hostess Twinkies move through production in their trays.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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.

Now Here’s the Truth

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.

A split open Twinkie is placed on top of two Hostess cupcakes.
Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.

People Can Get Really Creative

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.

A Twinkie wedding Cake / Twinkies sushi
Source: Hostess

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”) …

The Twinkie Diet

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.”

Mark Haub is eating sweet cakes and twinkies.
Source: CNN

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.

Okay, So What Happened to the Twinkie Game?

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.

Store shelves which are typically filled with Twinkies, stand empty.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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?

Let’s Go Back to the Beginning

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.

A vintage photo of a factory worker in the Hostess Factory.
Source: Flickr

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.

Remember Twinkie the Kid?

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.

A man stands in a Twinkie the Kid mascot costume.
Photo by Bromberger Hoover Photo/Getty Images

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.

From Telephone Companies to Dog Food Brands

“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.

Workers prepare Hostess Twinkies for packaging.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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.

With the ‘90s Came a New Era of Health Consciousness

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.

Boxes of Hostess Twinkies are seen on the shelves of a grocery store.
Photo by Tina Fineberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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%.

A Bad for Business Delivery System

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.

A delivery man and his Twinkies delivery truck.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

Bankruptcy Round One

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.

Boxes of Twinkies are on sale.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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.

Bankruptcy Round Two

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.

Striking workers picket outside a Hostess Brands Inc. bakery.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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 Death of a Piece of Americana

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.

A customer buys multiple boxes of Hostess Twinkies.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

“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?

“It’s Hard to Kill a Good Brand”

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.”

Twinkies snack cakes are boxed at the company's factory.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“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.

The Dream Team

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.

A photo of Andy Jhawar / A picture of Dean Metropoulos
Source: Pinterest / Facebook

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.

They Bought Twinkies, the Recipes, and Five Factories

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.”

Dean Metropoulos speaks during an event.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

They Hit the Ground Running

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.

A Hostess driver for 16-years, pushes an empty rack alongside his truck.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

It Tastes the Same, but Lasts Longer

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.

Boxes of Hostess Twinkies snack cakes are stacked.
Photo by Scott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

Remember the Mini-Twinkies?

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.

Hostess Twinkies move through the packaging process.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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 Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever

“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.

Boxes of Hostess Twinkies snack cakes sit on the packaging line.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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.

One Million Twinkies a Day

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%.

Boxes of Hostess Twinkies snack cakes travel on a conveyor.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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 Main Ingredient: Nostalgia

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.

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Photo by Scott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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…

What Was the Twinkie Defense All About?

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.

Dan White stands behind the counter of his fast-food restaurant.
Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images

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 Myth of the Twinkie Defense

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.

Police officers lead Dan White down the hall.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

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 Catchy Phrase Stuck Around

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.

Dan White speaks to the press.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

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.

The Cough Syrup Version

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.

Matthew Phelps stands in court.
Matthew Phelps. Source: Pinterest

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.)

Outrageous but Surprisingly Common

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.

James McVay and his lawyer stand in court.
James McVay. Source: Reddit

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.

The Caffeine Version

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.

Kenneth Sands sits in court.
Kenneth Sands. Source: Facebook

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…