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.
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  • Diane

    Anyone who cannot distinguish between Tastykakes and Devil Dogs, Zebra Cakes and Twinkies probably should not write about them.

  • Ellen

    Ex-Philly girl misses TastyKake’s and is not beneath begging her relatives to bring boxes when they come to California to visit. Though not as memorable as they once were (can you say preservatives?) I still jones for them and Habersett’s Scrapple and Taylor’s Pork Roll. Now we’ll see another Philadelphia institution lost and a relocation to a baking company (in Georgia?) that will likely turn the Krimpets into a Twinkie (gag!) or worse develop a grits Krimpet. I shudder to think of it.
    However, if the new baking company can manage to crank out a decent TastyKake please ensure distribution to southern California Ralph’s or Albertson’s stores please!!!

  • Stephen

    one has to look far and wide to find a few examples nationaly where taxpayer support of businesses in competitive markets has succeed. All it does is postpone the tough business decisions to the the point where it is no longer possible to save the business, its jobs and its tax revenues. Tastey subsidies are like deserts, a sweet taste that is soon gone and the debilitating flab remains.

  • Stephen

    one has to look far and wide to find a few examples nationaly where taxpayer support of businesses in competitive markets has succeed. All it does is postpone the tough business decisions to the the point where it is no longer possible to save the business, its jobs and its tax revenues. Tastey subsidies are like deserts, a sweet taste that is soon gone and the debilitating flab remains.

  • DAV

    I think the writer stated the obvious fact: “Charlie had no experience with running this type of company”. But someone who may have done it better is Vincent Melchiorre who was a Marketing Exec. for Tastykake and is now with Bimbo.

  • suzanne

    Tastykake sold out to an out of town company who doesn’t know Philly tastes,customs,traditions,or expectations.The product will probably shrink in size,rise in price and be made with corn sirop instead of sugar.Will be known as TastelessKakes or worse.

  • Robert

    When I moved from my home in Maryland to Georgia in 1985, the thing I missed most after family and friends were Tastykakes. Thanks to Flowers Bakery I now enjoy Tastykakes whenever I want. I close my eyes, take a bite, and for a moment I’m home again. Flowers did more than preserve jobs, and for that I’m a grateful customer.