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Twinkies are back, less palatable than ever

Twinkies

Twinkies, the iconic, Chicago-born, creme-filled snack cakes, return to grocers’ shelves as of today under the auspices of the Hostess company’s new owners. We’ve no word yet whether restaurants such as Dick’s River Roadhouse in Mount Prospect, which formerly served deep-fried Twinkies, plans to add them back to the menu.

The Twinkie revival comes to the relief of locals, who used to eat some 27 million of the treats a year, more than any other market. But before you rush out to pick up a package, you might want to take a closer look.

First, you won’t get quite as much Twinkie for your money. Today’s Twinkies are about 10 percent smaller: A box of 10 weighs 13.58 ounces vs. 15 ounces for the old style sponge cakes.

They’ll also be less fresh. Twinkies used to have a recommended shelf life of 26 days. The product now being marketed has a 45-day lifespan, and Hostess won’t disclose what changes it made to increase longevity, although reportedly, six new ingredients have been added to the already extensive list.

Further, the company will sell about 10 percent of the product line frozen to retailers, who’ll be allowed to put their own best-by dates on thawed cakes, so you’ll have no way of knowing how old any given Twinkie really is.

The thing about the new Twinkies that might really stick in your craw, though, is that the experienced bakers who used to make them have all been replaced by new hires. Twinkies are no longer union-made.

The Twinkies hiatus resulted from the Hostess Brands Inc. bankruptcy and liquidation last year. Despite declining sales and management screw-ups, executives blamed the shutdown on labor issues that resulted in a workers ‘ strike, yet the striking workers had been taking pay cuts for years.

The strike led from the announcement that after unions had agreed to give up a portion of promised wages to contribute to the company pension plan, Hostess had stopped funding pensions, instead putting the money toward operational expenses, such as executives’ salaries and bonuses. Even in bankruptcy, the company paid a reported $1.8 million in executive bonuses, while calling for further wage and benefits cuts from the rank and file. When the union struck, management decided to liquidate rather than negotiate.

The Hostess shutdown put some 18,500 workers on the street, including more than 1,400 in Illinois. The restart of ovens in Schiller Park hasn’t put these folks back to work, however.

Normally, the sale of a company does not affect union contracts, but in this case, Hostess sold not its corporation but only its recipes, real estate and other assets (much the same way the owners of The Berghoff in the Loop sold the restaurant to their daughter in 2006, another sale that cut out a union). New Hostess owners, private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co., who bought the snack-cake portion of Hostess for a reported $410 million, aren’t required to rehire laid-off workers or deal with the union and they haven’t.

Twinkies date back to 1930. James Dewar, who’d started working in 1920 at the Hostess bakery in Schiller Park as a deliveryman, driving products around town in a horse-drawn wagon, had by that time risen to be bakery manager.

The company made a product called Little Shortbread Fingers, produced for just six weeks each year during strawberry season. Their narrow, oblong baking pans sat empty the rest of the time. To get more use out of them, Dewar came up with the idea of filling sponge cakes with banana cream.

On a trip to St. Louis, Dewar saw a billboard advertising the Twinkle Toe Shoe Company, and that inspired the new product’s name. When bananas became scarce during World War II, the bakery substituted vanilla-flavored filling.

The Hostess plant at 9555 W. Soreng Ave., Schiller Park, is one of one of four bakeries the new owners have reopened, so Twinkies still have a Chicago presence. But they don’t taste so sweet as they used to.