Ronnie Polaneczky: Kan Tastykake be saved?

Posted: January 06, 2011

YEARS FROM NOW, I will remember where I was when I heard yesterday's shocking news.

I was sitting right here at the Daily News when I learned that Tastykake, financially teetering after a brutal fourth quarter, announced that it may have to merge with another company or - gasp! - sell itself.

Merge this Philadelphia icon with some out-of-town pretender pushing snacks like Drakes or, Lord help us, Little Debbie?

Gag me with a cupcake.

Or sell it? Hell, as long as we're peddling our local treasures, why don't we put the Liberty Bell on Craigslist? Or see if Walmart wants to buy Reading Terminal Market?

The Tastykake news was so unsettling, I needed to steady myself. So I bought a pack of Butterscotch Krimpets and wolfed them down in six bites. Then I wiped the stray smears of icing from the wrapper, licking it clean.

Because that's what you do with Krimpets.

And with Tastykake Juniors. And Chocolate and Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes. And Cream-Filled Cupcakes.

And don't get me started on the pies. Golden, crust-encased oblongs of fat and sugar, shaped to fit the palm, no fork needed.

I'll admit it had been a while since I'd eaten a Tastykake. But if I'd known the company's days were numbered, I would've eaten the goodies for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the company's last disastrous quarter.

Anything to save this century-old Philly friend from going the way of so many other local, beloved institutions whose names are embroidered in memory - like Wanamaker, Buten, Budd, Lit and Schmidt.

We can't let another cherished company die on our watch. We must Save Our Snacks!

But how?

My interviews yesterday with city foodies and longtime Tastykake customers revealed areas where they believe Tastykake needs to up its game.

Because - are you listening, Tastykake CEO Charlie Pizzi? - a lot of folks feel like their decades-long loyalty to the brand has been taken for granted.

Says longtime Daily News reader and former Tastykake fan Sean Diver, "The cakes barely taste like cakes anymore, and are far too processed. The company hasn't had anything new that is notable in what seems like 50 years.

"So, it's a 'been there . . . ate that' kind of experience."

What else are they saying?

Get back to the basics.

"In my restaurant, if the food doesn't blow away our customers every time they sit down, we have failed. Tastykake should take that same attitude," says Terence Feury, chef at Fork Restaurant, who has a soft spot for the Peanut Butter Kandy Kake. "They should stick with the products they do best."

Executive Chef John O'Brien at Winnie's LeBus thinks the pie fillings don't taste "fresh" enough, so he'd tweak the recipe to fix that.

And restaurateur Marc Vetri, a Tastykake lover who spent $1,000 shipping Tastykakes to his brother's 40th-birthday party in Los Angeles, nonetheless misses those trans-fats that made gave Tastykakes a certain yumminess.

"When you're eating junk food, you want it to taste good, otherwise, what's the point?" says Vetri, who wishes Tastykake made a chocolate-mint product.

Think outside the package.

Joseph Cairns, manager of Miel Patisserie, thinks it's high time for Tastykake to open its own sit-down shops - Tastycafes, perhaps? - where customers can enjoy just-baked Tastykakes served on a plate, not pulled out of a wrapper.

His idea rang true to Feury, who notes how customers flock to Krispy Kreme stores when the "Hot Fresh" sign lights up outside, alerting customers that the doughnuts are out of the oven.

"Hot, fresh Tastykakes would be awesome," he says.

Stay on message.

Once the basics are down, Tastykake should keep its marketing simple, says Nat Gutwirth.

An advertising consultant with Philly-based Left Hand Creative, he worked for two decades on the Tastykake advertising account when he was with the now-defunct Weightman agency (the ones behind that "Nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake" campaign).

"The best way to sell the product is on appetite appeal," he says. "Every photo should be beautiful and show the richness and quality of the cakes and pies, to give people a tangible feeling of the experience of eating that product. You're selling the product, so show the product."

And forget about gimmicky promotions with sports teams and the like. Just sell the darn cakes.

Nonetheless, it never hurts to remind the public that the old mare is still hip.

Remember when restaurateur Stephen Starr created the "Cake Shake"? It was a milkshake, offered at his SquareBurger food stand in Franklin Square, that featured chunks of Butterscotch Krimpet. It was disgustingly delicious - a kitschy twist on an old favorite.

Tastykake's marketing staffers could partner with local chefs to do similar, funny inventions, says Kevin Meeker, owner of Q BBQ in Old City.

At home, he actually deep-fries Tastykake apple pies, which his family adores. He says he'd love to get them on the menu at his restaurant, paired with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate or caramel sauce.

"If Tastykake gives me the pies, I'll do them," he says.

Can it work?

Can we, the public, really Save Our Snacks, when bigger economic forces (and, perhaps, some stuck-in-the-mud Tastykake business practices) are clearly at play?

Time will tell. But we must try.

Because a city without a locally made Jelly Krimpet is a city that's lost its sweetness.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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