Driving past the shuttered Wonder Bread Bakery Outlet in Suitland, Md., I had a two-for-a-dime childhood memory about Twinkies. Tonguing out the cream filling like an anteater. Sinfully delicious. But nothing that would send me into sugar shock on news of the snackmaker’s demise.
Ever since Hostess Brands went out of business last week, conventional wisdom has held that baby boomers like me have been doing most of the bawling. The iconic snack of the sweet-tooth generation — we who could have our cake and eat it, too — Twinkies were rumored to contain secret ingredients that made it, and us, virtually last forever. Now that Twinkies’ expiration date had been decided by a bankruptcy judge, we’d be fretting about our own shelf life.
“Never underestimate baby-boomer nostalgia, which is acute narcissism,” Washington Post columnist George F. Will wrote. Will, who hails from the generation that gave us Crisco and other trans fats to die for, added more lard: “The Twinkies melodrama has the boomers thinking — as usual, about themselves: If an 82-year-old brand can die, so can we. Is that even legal?”
Overlooked in this food drama, however, is the group that matters most: the millennials, that grab-and-go generation, born between 1982 and 2001, who rule the snack-food world.
“The college kids have been the ones most definitely in love with Twinkies — they buy boxes full,” said Steve Ettlinger, author of “Twinkie Deconstructed,” a 2007 book about the snack food’s ingredients. “They see it as a pick-me-up. I think baby boomers are more into kale.”
But the millennials can also be a fickle bunch. Although brand aware in the extreme — marketers say today’s average 10-year-old can recognize at least 400 brand names — brand loyalty is negligible. While shopping and texting, for instance, they might reach for a Twinkie but inadvertently pick up the Little Debbie knockoff next to it. And think nothing of it.
Too bad Hostess didn’t do more to woo what snack sellers call “a consumer behemoth.”
“Snacking is so integral to the lifestyle of Millennials (adults under the age of 30) that Packaged Facts considers them a driving force that will propel the U.S. snack market to sales of $77 billion by 2015,” declared an August report by the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Millennials also frequently indulge in what the report called “the ‘Fourthmeal,’ a dining occasion that is an expansion of the midnight snack and is typically eaten outside the home and with at least one other person” between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In other words, there was no good reason for Hostess to go out of business, for 18,500 workers to lose their jobs. The market was there.
Part of what made the Twinkie so appealing to baby boomers, Ettlinger said, was its appearance: “cute and blonde.”
“Based on my research, the American obsession with blondes in the 1950s and ’60s enhanced our response to the Twinkie,” he said. “It’s not the Marilyn Monroe of cakes, more like the blonde you catch a glimpse of as she disappears around the grocery store aisle. You don’t see people responding to Ding Dongs the same way.”
Perhaps. But Ding Dongs are not chocolate Twinkies. Hostess never had a bona fide chocolate sponge cream-filled Twinkie. (The chocolate-covered finger it came out with at one point, the Chocodile, didn’t even come close.) You’d think a chocolate Twinkie would be a no-brainer since the Hostess chocolate CupCake was the most popular snack of all.
The bakers union could have used a makeover as well. Starting with the name: Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union. Seriously? A better calling card would read something like: Dessert & After-Dinner Drink and Smoke International.
Nobody would have wanted them to go on strike. And my Hostess store might still be open, making more Twinkie memories for generations to come.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.