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
Although Baur was the baker, it was Morris — the salesman — who was obsessed with freshness. In the company’s early years, he refused to stock stores with more cakes than they could sell in two days. As a marketing strategy, it was genius. Tasty products gained a reputation for quality that the company still trades on today. And if it occasionally meant that stores sold out of Tasty products, well, that just helped prove to consumers how good and fresh the cakes must be.
Tasty grew steadily, surviving the Great Depression and World War II with aplomb. The first signs of trouble didn’t emerge until after the war, with the rise of suburbia and supermarkets and the decline of the corner store and the urban white working class.
EVEN THEN, THOUGH, Tasty Baking was fundamentally sound. There were still plenty of families that ate Tastykakes every day, like the one that raised Charlie Pizzi. The son of a cement mason and a homemaker, Pizzi grew up with four sisters in a two-story rowhome with a gabled roof and a tiny front yard in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia. His youth has all the markers of the classic white working-class Philadelphia experience: He went to an all-boys parochial school, St. Thomas More, before attending La Salle University and, later, Penn for his master’s. He delivered the Evening Bulletin and worked at the Penn Fruit grocery store. In his lunch, his mom would pack chocolate cupcakes and Coconut Juniors.
Pizzi’s Philadelphia roots — and even more to the point, his Philadelphia connections — would prove crucial in his selection to oversee Tastykake in 2002, despite the fact that he had never run a for-profit company, or worked in the food business or in manufacturing, either. It was as if a quintessential Philly guy would somehow have a better shot at saving such a quintessentially Philly brand.
But Pizzi’s upbringing is a way of life that is increasingly rare in Philadelphia. St. Thomas More closed back in 1975, and Penn Fruit and the Evening Bulletin didn’t last much longer. Pizzi’s faith in Philadelphia never faltered, though, even as the institutions of his youth failed. His family says the suburbs never really called to him, not even in those years when he would make the long commute by bus to the Aronimink country club in Newtown Square, where he shined shoes and mixed martinis for the suburban executive set, getting an early look at the rituals and customs of the business titans he’d eventually consider friends and colleagues. One day after college, he met a nice nurse from Roxborough named Elise at a Halloween party. Ten months later, they were married. The Pizzis had four boys (their oldest, Justin, is a reporter for NBC 10), and raised them in Andorra and Roxborough.
In better days, Charlie Pizzi, usually a willing interviewee, would surely have told me about all this himself. This time, though, leading up to the April 11th sale, Pizzi declined to talk. Through another Tasty Baking executive, he said that given his company’s current crisis, he would be too constrained by Securities and Exchange Commission rules to speak freely. But Pizzi gave friends and colleagues the green light to talk on his behalf, and they didn’t hesitate to tell his story for him.