Local grocers: Demand high, supplies tight for Twinkies

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, July 28, 2013

JANESVILLE—It was 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and there were three boxes of Twinkies left at Sentry Foods on Janesville's east side.

Joe Anderson, the supermarket's inventory manager, gave a little friendly advice

“You'll probably want to get a box right now,” he said.

He wasn't kidding. Just a day later, the shelves at the store on East Milwaukee Street were completely void of the little golden cream-filled snack cakes.

Anderson and Rob Terry, the store's manager, both shake their heads when they consider the current state of affairs in the snack cake market. It's something the two veteran grocers could never have imagined.

For the time being, there is a Twinkie shortage.

Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, brought back its popular line of snack cakes July 15, after a months-long bankruptcy and buyout this year by a consortium of investors.

Hostess this month has trumpeted the return of Twinkies and its other snacks as “The Sweetest Comeback in The History of Ever.” Yet many local grocers are still waiting for the comeback to arrive.

“It's been more like the sweetest comeback in the history of never,” Anderson joked.

Amid supply chain changes for Twinkies—Hostess' most popular snack cake—and an unprecedented demand that Hostess' baking facilities can't keep up with, managers at stores such as Sentry say they've been waiting for days to get their inventory orders filled.

Most chain grocers in Janesville have been getting Hostess orders, but they're seeing shipments of Twinkies being shrunk or controlled by allocation as stores' regional supply warehouses grapple to make sure they supply as many boxes of Twinkies as possible to each store within their network, local grocers said.

As Twinkies continue to trickle in, often days after stores have run out, the public's demand has stayed high.

At Sentry, Twinkies seem to go out as fast as they come in. In fact, Terry said, one local man has been calling the store every day since July 15 to ask if Sentry has any more Twinkies in.

“I don't get it,” Terry said. “It's a Twinkie. Did anybody think they'd be so dearly missed?”

That's the problem. It seems nobody anticipated how much customers would miss golden sponge cakes and their brand companions, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and Donettes.

The snack cakes had been gone since November 2012, and that absence appears to have made mouths water harder—both nationally and locally.

Area grocers say many stores have gotten invoice memos from warehouses apologizing for a lag in supplies of Twinkies or initial orders from stores being downsized by suppliers.

Hostess, in its restructuring, no longer distributes directly to stores. Instead, it supplies grocery warehouses, which then ship out supplies to stores, Terry said.

That's created a conundrum for local stores because they don't have direct control over their inventory.

Also, Terry said, Hostess no longer will give credit for unsold boxes of products back. If the products are unsold beyond their expiration date, which is 45 days from the time stores mark and stock them, the stores are stuck with them.

Of course, Terry pointed out, that's not a problem right now.

“It's just that we're in an initial craze, obviously,” Terry said. “You really have to wonder how long it'll last.”

Late last week at Schnucks supermarket on Milton Avenue in Janesville, the snack-cake aisle was stocked with Little Debbie-brand snack cakes and a supply of every Hostess-brand snack—except for Twinkies.

There was a big gap on the shelves where, at some earlier time, Twinkies had been. You could almost smell the ghost of Twinkie the Kid.

The store's bakery manager, Judy Peters, said the store stocked Twinkies on Hostess' July 15 rollout, but they sold out the next day. The store was still waiting for a second shipment of Twinkies with no definite date set.

“The Twinkie guy told me that they underestimated the demand seven times over,” she said.

The Gazette was unable to reach a Hostess spokesperson for comment. A media relations coordinator for Hostess' new corporate ownership said the company has a huge backlog of public, corporate and media inquiries it's struggling to meet—much like the company's bakeries, which are working at capacity and can't keep up with demand, local grocers say they've been told.

Woodman's Market in Janesville confirmed last week that it had been flat out of Twinkies for almost a week. That store was one of only a few locally—Wal-Mart included—that actually had Twinkies in a few days before the scheduled national rollout.

Manager Steve Smith said the store initially got about 50 boxes of Twinkies, which the store placed on rack displays near both main entrances. They sold out almost immediately.

“We put ours out and sold them, and now we'll wait for more. That's really all there is to it,” Smith said.

Woodman's regional bakery manager Mike Bierman, who works at another store in Appleton, said Woodman's stores expected to have more Twinkies shipped out to them sometime late last week or early this week.

“We're kind of getting them as they produce them,” he said.

In Milton, Piggly Wiggly inventory manager Steve Sexe said he's adapted to the weird uncertainty in the Twinkie market with an odd marketing strategy.

While many stores initially trumpeted the re-arrival of Hostess snacks earlier this month, Sexe says he's been marketing the store's Hostess snacks more quietly.

Earlier this week, Sexe had several boxes of Twinkies left on the shelves. He said that's likely because he's been hiding Twinkies in plain view at the same aisle-end display area where the store had stocked Hostess snacks in the past.

Sexe said that's actually camouflaged Twinkies from shoppers expecting to see Twinkies stocked at flashy displays at store entrances.  

“It's hard, because you don't want to hide them, but at the same time, you don't want to sell them out right away and have your customers mad about it,” he said.

On the drive back from Milton Piggly Wiggly last week, a Gazette reporter cracked open a fresh box of Twinkies, one of the few the reporter found in a two-hour trek around northern Rock County.

Call it victory—or just blind luck—in a cream-filled cake the size of a pocket harmonica.

As the mess of highway cones and barricades along the Highway 26 bypass construction blurred past, the Twinkies went down the hatch, one by one, like mellow gold.

In a world of change, some things taste the same as ever.

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