The Fall of Tastykake
With the sale of the 100-year-old Philadelphia brand to a Georgia company, serious questions arise about Tasty Baking’s demise, from installing politically connected Charlie Pizzi as CEO to taxpayers shelling out $32 million to build a new factory in the Navy Yard. In the end, Tasty’s long rise and recent fall are the story of how this city works — or more accurately, too often doesn’t
But it remains to be seen if the deal is psychically satisfying for Philadelphians, who, predictably, had responded to the possibility of Tastykake’s demise earlier this year with horror completely out of proportion to the company’s economic impact. One woman told Fox 29 that the company going under would be “like life without music.” City chefs began using Tasty products in their cuisine, like the sliders at the foodie hotspot Adsum, which feature ground brisket topped with a sour-cherry sauce, sriracha, fermented black garlic and American cheese, all sandwiched between a pair of peanut butter Kandy Kakes.
Clearly, there was much more than 766 jobs at stake. There was the fear of severing a link to powerful childhood memories. There was the sense that, if Tastykake disappeared, Philadelphia would somehow lose a bit of its own identity. For a town with just a few iconic companies left, Tasty Baking’s failure would be a serious psychic blow. Ed Rendell puts it well when he’s asked why Tastykake seems so important.
“Because it’s ours,” he says. “Because it’s good.”
I feel I should confess something at this point: I do not much like Tastykakes. Having grown up in the Kandy Kake-free zone of the West Coast, I don’t taste childhood when I eat a Butterscotch Krimpet; I taste only sickeningly sweet frosting and mealy cake. To me, Tasty’s products are all but indistinguishable from the Devil Dogs, Zebra Cakes and Twinkies made by the company’s rivals.
But even a heathen like me can appreciate Rendell’s first point. Perhaps more than any other local company, Tasty Baking is evocative of the Philadelphia condition. Just like the city it calls home, the company struggled to stay vital and relevant as manufacturing jobs dried up and the white working class moved out to the suburbs. Less obvious is the fact that Tasty’s leaders and their allies outside the company were uncannily accurate reflections of the business culture they inhabit — and nothing reflects that more than Charlie Pizzi, with myriad friends in the city’s political and business communities, installed as CEO in 2002. The story of Tasty Baking — of its rise, its move to the Navy Yard and now its disappearance as a point of city pride — is a scale model of the way Philadelphia works. Or, more accurately, how it too often does not.
IN THE LIMITED PANTHEON of Philadelphia business icons, Tastykake founders Philip J. Baur and Herbert Morris stand as parochial versions of Ray Kroc and Henry Ford, innovators who not only introduced a new product, but also perfected the means to bake their cakes on a scale few others could match.
Baur was a baker from Pittsburgh, and Morris an egg salesman from Boston. In 1914, they hit up family members for $50,000 on the strength of a simple business plan: They would sell fresh, individually packaged cakes to the city’s myriad corner stores. The company’s waxed-paper-wrapped cakes, which sold for 10 cents apiece, were marketed as the ideal lunch-bucket treat for factory hands and schoolchildren. Baur and Morris did $300,000 in business their first year, a whopping sum for a startup company in the early 1900s.
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