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 the fact that the new facility lacks the 20th-century charm of the old one is no indictment of Pizzi. In putting together the deal that made the new factory possible, Pizzi accomplished what the board hired him to do. So maybe it’s a mistake to fault the board’s selection of Pizzi as well. After all, Tastykake is a creature of the business world it inhabits, a world where a weak private sector doesn’t typically lead the public sector, but rather depends on it for subsidies and aid.
“In Philadelphia, it’s very much who you know, and not how good your ideas are,” says Stephen Van Dyck, the former CEO of MariTrans Shipping. After 25 years in Philadelphia, Van Dyck grew so frustrated with the city’s business culture — and the stream of public funding he saw going to private enterprise in the form of cash for stadiums, Delaware River dredging and the effort to keep shipbuilding alive at the Navy Yard — that he relocated his firm from Market Street to Tampa in 1999.
It’s like we feel bad for those companies — ones with the right connections, at any rate — unfortunate enough to be headquartered here (Comcast excluded). They are so weak, so fragile, and there are so few of them that, even in dire financial times, virtually no objections were raised when Pizzi asked for a little public assistance. And it is, after all, Tastykake we’re talking about.
Obviously, companies nationwide have their hands out. But I wonder what high-profile CEO positions would have been available for a man with Pizzi’s experience in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or in any city with a business culture that stands on its own. As one prominent business observer brutally puts it: “Having the connections Charlie has is very important to any company. But that’s why companies have lobbyists. You don’t need to make the lobbyist the CEO.”
Except, it seems, in Philadelphia.
Still, without Pizzi and his political pull, Tasty Baking would likely not have a state-of-the-art bakery at the Navy Yard. Without the new bakery, a buyer like Flowers Foods would probably opt to make Tastykakes somewhere else altogether. Certainly it is hard to imagine a new owner tolerating the old, inefficient Nicetown plant for long. At minimum, the April sale, as Pizzi put it himself in a statement, “ensures that Tastykakes will continue to be made by Philadelphians in Philadelphia.” The difference, then, is that the big Tastykake business decisions will be made not locally, but at Flowers’s headquarters in Thomasville, Georgia. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
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