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Twinkies' Return Is Mostly Sweet News For Kansas Town

May 27, 2013
Originally published on May 27, 2013 5:17 am

The news of Hostess' return to Emporia, Kan., sparked an ecstatic response in this beleaguered town — even though there will be only half as many jobs.

The new company, formed when investors bought Hostess' snack cake business, has hired longtime snack cake production veterans Pat Chambers and her husband, Bob, to help get the bakery here running again. Pat lost her job at the Hostess plant when it closed last November. Now, she sits beaming on her front porch, wearing a dirty Hostess work shirt.

"We worked today! It's like going home," she says. "I'm so excited. I'm so happy."

When Hostess went bankrupt, the Chamberses almost did, too.

"We don't have the car anymore. We got rid of the boat," Pat Chambers says. "I've gone from a 2012 beautiful, convertible Camaro to an '87 Oldsmobile Cutlass."

The bakery had been cranking out snack cakes in this town of 25,000 for half a century, filling the air here with sweet smells. Those smells are much nicer than the ones coming off the meatpacking plant, which was the other big employer here — until it cut most of its workforce. Chambers says the bakery also generated good wages for generations of Emporia families.

"At one point ... I worked there, my son worked there, my daughter worked there, my sister worked there and my sister-in-law worked there, all at the same time," she says. "So at one time it was like, half the family was there."

Across the country, Hostess workers lost more than 18,000 mostly union jobs when the company crumbled. The assets were sliced up, with other companies buying the Hostess bread bakeries and the new Hostess Brands LLC set up to launch a much leaner snack cake business. The old Hostess had 11 snack cake bakeries. The new one will start with four, employing about 1,500 people in Kansas, Georgia, Indianapolis and suburban Chicago.

Kent Heermann, president of the economic development association in Emporia, says the bakery opening again marks a major reversal.

"It's an opportunity for those skilled workers to get re-employed," Heermann says.

Actually, it's about half of the more than 500 people who worked at the Emporia bakery. Many of the rest are still looking for jobs.

Janice Brown played an active role in the strike that ultimately brought down the old company.

"I was union, and I ... stood up with my brothers and sisters. They took our pension, and I'm not going to back down from that," Brown says. "I have no regrets at all — at all."

Brown may not, but some of the people she used to work with at Hostess blame the company's failure on the union's role. If it had made more concessions, they say, Hostess and their old, better-paying jobs would still be around. Brown admits that the new plant won't take the place of the old one.

"It's not going to get us back what we had. No, for one they won't have the union out there," she says.

They do have jobs, though, and that's good news for Emporia as it fights to stem the loss of opportunities, tax base and residents. Folks in this bakery town will also be glad to get their Twinkies back, especially those superfresh ones, as they come right off the production line later this summer.

Copyright 2014 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to a community in neighboring Kansas that's looking for some economic recovery. The big development? Twinkies and Ding Dongs are coming back. Whether or not you're a fan of these Hostess snacks, this is good news for Emporia, Kan., home to one of the bakeries set to start producing them again. Good news - but not great because as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the new jobs at Hostess aren't quite as sweet as the old ones.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hostess went bankrupt half a year ago, but you can still buy a Twinkie if you just know where to look.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wave to the camera, guys.

MORRIS: At a so-called rave run in Kansas City, Brian Davis stands in front of a food truck, gobbling up a deep-fried Twinkie.

BRIAN DAVIS: Yup. That's good.

MORRIS: The guy inside the truck, Michael Bradbury, bought 10,000 Twinkies - and freezers to store them in - when Hostess went under.

MICHAEL BRADBURY: It's an American icon, I think. So I'm happy that they're going to be back in business. So yeah, in Kansas City people are happy about Twinkies coming back. Get on the highway though, I-35, I'm just a hundred miles southwest of here - emotions will run a lot deeper.

PAT CHAMBERS: Yes, I'm excited.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Pat Chambers lost her job at the Hostess plant here in Emporia, Kan., when it closed last November. Now, she sits beaming on her front porch, wearing a dirty Hostess work shirt.

CHAMBERS: We worked today. It's like going home, it really is. It's like going home.

MORRIS: The new company, formed when investors bought Hostess's snack cake business, has hired Pat and her husband, Bob Chambers - both longtime snack cake production veterans - to help get the bakery here running again.

CHAMBERS: I'm so excited. I'm so happy. I'm kind of like, you don't understand; oh my God, this has been just unreal.

MORRIS: Because when Hostess went bankrupt, the Chambers almost did, too.

CHAMBERS: We don't have the car anymore. We had to get rid of the boat. I mean, yeah, I've gone from a 2012 beautiful, convertible Camaro to an '87 Oldsmobile Cutlass. But she starts. She's paid off. We can run liability on her, whereas the Camaro...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

CHAMBERS: Yeah, so this is her.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAMBERS: Long sight different.

MORRIS: Emporia is, too. The bakery had been cranking out snack cakes for half a century, filling the air here with sweet smells - much nicer than the ones coming off the meat-packing plant, which was the other big employer here until it cut most of it workforce. Chambers says the bakery also generated good wages for generations of Emporia families.

CHAMBERS: At one point, he worked there, I worked there, my son worked there, my daughter worked there, my sister worked there, and my sister-in-law worked there - all at the same time. So at one time, it was like half the family there.

MORRIS: Across the country, Hostess workers lost more than 18,000 mostly union jobs when the company crumbled. The assets were sliced up, with other companies buying the Hostess bread bakeries. And the new Hostess Brands LLC set up to launch a much leaner snack cake business. The old Hostess had 11 snack cake bakeries. The new one will start with four, employing about 1,500 people in Kansas, Georgia, Indianapolis and suburban Chicago.

Kent Heermann, president of the Economic Development Association in Emporia, says the bakery opening again marks a major reversal.

KENT HEERMANN: It's an opportunity for those displaced workers that have that skill, to get re-employed.

MORRIS: Some of them.

HEERMANN: Yeah, some of them. You're right.

MORRIS: About half of the more than 500 people who worked at the Emporia bakery. Many of the rest are still looking for jobs.

JANICE BROWN: I'm Janice Brown. We are at my residence in Emporia, Kan., two car lengths from the railroad tracks.

MORRIS: Brown played an active role in the strike that ultimately brought down the company.

BROWN: I was union and I was with, stood up with my brothers and sisters. They took our pension. I'm not going to back down from that. Nuh-uh. I have no regrets at all - at all.

MORRIS: Brown may not, but some of the people she used to work with at Hostess blame the company's failure on the union's role. If it had made more concessions, they say, Hostess and their old, better-paying jobs would still be around. Brown admits that the new plant won't take the place of the old one.

BROWN: No. It's not going to get us back what we had. No. For one, they won't have the union out there.

MORRIS: They do have jobs, though, and that's good news for Emporia as it fights to stem the loss of opportunities, tax base and residents. Folks in this bakery town will also be glad to get their Twinkies back, especially those super-fresh ones as they come right off the production line later this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.