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Oh, how the Twinkie has fallen: Reflections of an ex-Twinkie tester

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Twinkies have been around since 1930, but today their manufacturer has filed for bankruptcy protection.

Hostess Brands, the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, has filed for bankruptcy protection, but it’s unlikely Twinkies will disappear. After all, the crème-filled snack cake has been around for more than 80 years. There was a time when no self-respecting American mom would dream of sending her children off to school without a Twinkie in their lunchboxes.

Still, things have surely changed since I went to work for Continental Baking Company (which today has morphed into Hostess Brands). In those days the company, which also made Wonder Bread and other Hostess snacks, was part of the mighty conglomerate ITT, reporting directly to its CEO.  It operated 66 bakeries throughout the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii. Twinkies were as well-known a national brand as Ford or Coke, and there were more Wonder Bread and Twinkie trucks on the road than there were brown UPS trucks. All over America, schoolchildren visited Twinkie bakeries with their teachers and stared in awe as those yellow cakes shot down conveyers like machine-gun bullets.

Those were heady days for Continental, and Twinkies were its star performer. I had a Twinkie-yellow Cadillac convertible and a Twinkie-yellow ski boat, both with white tops. I loved Twinkies. Everybody did. How could this wonderfully tasty American icon fall so far? I think the quality has diminished since my day.

With dozens of bakeries scattered across the country, quality control was crucial: Every Twinkie had to look and taste exactly like every other Twinkie produced in every other Hostess bakery. To achieve that, every day each bakery manager and his team (along with any executives visiting from corporate headquarters, like me) would examine and taste-test every product, down to counting the number of cherries in each Hostess cherry pie.

The creator of iconic American desserts like Twinkies and Ho-Hos has filed for bankruptcy, but Hostess Brand says lovers of those sweet treats will still be able to find them on store shelves.

Hostess was a success back then because its quality control was superb. Every product had a very short shelf life: just two or three days. Whatever didn’t sell by then was removed from shelves and returned to its bakery, where it was sold from the bakery’s thrift stores (the part of the business I was most involved with) at a reduced price. Thrift-store sales were huge, and if there weren’t enough returns to meet demand, we filled the gap with fresh product; we didn’t want customers traveling to the store to find empty shelves.

By the time Continental Baking was acquired by Interstate Bakeries Corporation (today Hostess Brands) in 1995, I had changed jobs, but I watched with interest as shelf lives were extended with preservatives and formulas were changed – even the formula for Twinkies, which had been sacrosanct in my day.

And Twinkies have changed from when I used to taste-test them, no question about that. The soft, creamy filling of yore is neither as soft or as creamy as it was then. The yellow sponge cake comes close, but it's not as fresh-tasting. And that is no surprise, because today's Twinkies have a 14-day shelf life, so of course there is a lot more preservative in each Twinkie.

The treat beloved by baby boomers has changed to something not as good. And that may have much to do with Hostess’s current financial woes.

Dick Schindler is a retired supermarket executive who tasted a lot of Twinkies during his time at Continental Baking. His son Rick is a TODAY.com writer/editor.

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