By Michael Hartwell
REGION -- Twinkies are back on the shelf after an eight-month absence, but the demand for yellow sponge cake logs with a cream center never disappeared.
While they were gone, other companies ramped up production of similar products. But can the popular snack compete with its many knock-offs?
Production of Twinkies and other Hostess Brands snacks halted in November 2012 after a labor dispute. The products came back to shelves July 15, after Hostess Brands struck a $410 million deal with private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulous & Co.
Hostess spokeswoman Hannah Arnold said news that Twinkies and other Hostess products were ceasing production triggered an outpouring from consumers.
"It was very clear that they wanted these products back. They wanted the original," said Arnold.
She said the remaining stock of Twinkies flew off the shelves even though knock-offs were already available.
But knock-offs don't always take a back seat to the original product. Oreos, introduced in 1912, were a knock-off of the then-popular Hydrox cookies, introduced in 1908.
"The real question is if consumers will buy into a product so loaded with empty calories," said Michael Greenwood, a business professor at Fitchburg State University. "Consumers might enjoy the option of a decadent, enjoyable treat, and there's nothing wrong with that."
He said Twinkies are true to their identity and make no apologies for what they are. They don't try to present themselves as healthy or a healthier version of other snacks, a feature he has coined as "brand audacity."
Greenwood said Twinkie is an easily recognizable brand and as such enjoys a lot of brand loyalty.
He compared the shuttering of Twinkie products last year to when Coca-Cola replaced its formula with New coke in 1985. New Coke did better in taste tests but Greenwood said marketing researchers failed to ask people how they felt about the old Coke disappearing.
"People marched in the streets. They signed petitions. They rallied." It took 77 days before Coca-Cola brought back the original formula.
"People were hoarding Twinkies. It was the same way with Coke. These marketers took a big lesson from that," said Greenwood. The failed New Coke experiment was successful at renewing the public's interest in Coke, according to Greenwood.
He said millennials are difficult to peg in how they will respond to the Twinkie market. On the one hand, the young generation of consumers are "brand switchers" and "brand triers" who are willing to try alternative brands when a similar product comes out. That means they are more willing to give Twinkie knock-offs a chance.
However, millennials are also more health-conscious than previous generations. He said they may stay away from Twinkies and the knock-offs as well.
Mike Gloekler, spokesman for McKee Foods, which makes Little Debbie snacks, said their Cloud Cakes line, chocolate cream-filled cupcakes and miniature doughnuts, have done well this year.
Cloud Cakes, which resemble Twinkies, were introduced before the Hostess shutdown. Gloekler said the Cloud Cakes recipe was changed when the cakes were reintroduced in January 2011, but denied the recipe was tweaked to clone Twinkies.
"I would say we were trying to improve that existing product," he said. Gloekler said many consumers who tried Cloud Cakes when no Twinkies were available will stick with them because of their high quality.
Arnold repeated a line the company has been pushing during its comeback: Twinkies are like Elvis. There are many impersonators, but there is only one king.
"Hostess products are a quality product," said Arnold. She said Twinkies are simply better than the knock-offs.
On Wednesday members of the community visited the Sentinel & Enterprise office in Fitchburg for a double-blind taste test of Hostess Twinkies, Little Debbie Cloud Cakes, Market Basket golden creme cakes, Mrs. Freshley's Dreamies and Great Value golden creme cakes, which is the Walmart store brand. All of these cakes are sold in the immediate area.
Each of the five community members was given half a cake of each of the five brands and asked to rank them. The brands of each cake were kept secret from both the tasters and the staff members administering the test. A clear winner and loser emerged from the test, but as the sample size was only five people, the test should not be considered a scientific experiment.
Tyler Rousseau, 11, of Fitchburg, said the Dreamies had a perfect level of sweetness, and the cream extended to the end of the cake.
She was a finalist in a recent kids cooking contest at her elementary school, the McKay Arts Academy of Fitchburg. She ranked the Walmart brand at the bottom, saying it was too sweet, and put the remaining three in the middle equally.
Brahm Schatia, 49, of Townsend, said the Dreamies and Twinkies were a close call, but ultimately chose the Dreamies. He put the Cloud Cakes in last place, saying it tasted "bready."
His son, Isaac Schatia, 11, of Townsend, thought the Dreamies and the Walmart brand tied for first. He put the other three evenly in last place.
Sandy Kenyon, 56, of Leominster, thought the Cloud Cakes belonged in last place.
"The taste is good, but I wouldn't pick this one because there's not enough cream."
Kenyon gave first place to the Walmart brand, putting Twinkies in second and Dreamies in third.
Rick Waterhouse, 50, of Leominster, also put Cloud Cakes in last place, saying they were too dry and short on cream. He held up his half-eaten piece to show that it had run out of cream one-fourth of the way in.
Waterhouse chose the Dreamies as his favorite.
"I like its fluffiness and creaminess," he said. Waterhouse finished all of the pieces except for the Cloud Cake and grabbed an extra Dreamie on his way out of the testing area.
With four out of five testers choosing the Dreamies, Mrs. Freshley's brand was the clear winner. They are sold in cellophane packs of two in special mid-aisle displays at $1 a package.
There was no clear second place, as Hostess Twinkies and Walmart's Great Value brand could each be considered the runner-up using different ways to calculate the results. No matter how the points were scored, Market Basket came in fourth and Little Debbie Cloud Cakes brought up the rear.
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