Lunchbox Snacks of YesterYear: Little Debbie

Friday, February 19, 2021

Welcome back to the third article in a series about our favorite Lunchbox Snacks of YesterYear.  In my first article, we covered the long history of probably the most well-known brand of snacks, Hostess!  You can click here to read that article.  Part Two covered a mostly regional brand, but one with a pretty big fan following (including myself) in Drake's CakePlease, if you haven't already, click HERE to read that one as well!

This time around, we'll be covering that has a connection to both Hostess and Drake's, and that's Little Debbie.  Little Debbie, and parent company McKee Foods, came up quite a bit in our Drake's article, so it seemed natural it be the subject of Part 3 of my Lunchbox Series.


Growing up, Mom didn't buy Little Debbie's much.  The only thing I can truly remember her buying was "Nutty Buddy" bars because my Dad liked them.  But that quickly stopped (or at least she hid them really well) because my brother and I would eat them before he could take them to work for his lunchbox snack!  

My wife, however, said she likely had Little Debbie snacks more than any other brand.  Oatmeal Creme Pies, the Fudge Brownie, and the Christmas Tree Brownies were often around while growing up.  Her mom, an elementary school teacher, would usually buy them for the students in her class, and they always had plenty around the house.  

Little Debbie began life in 1956 as Debra McKee.  That's right, "Little Debbie" is a real person.  It wasn't until she was 4 years old, in 1960, that she'd become famous.  How'd she get there?  Let's take a look back at the McKee family.

In 1933, as the country was going through the Great Depression, many people grew desperate.  O.D. and Ruth McKee had lost most, if not all, of their money due to a bank failure.  Before FDIC insurance, if a bank failed, it took your money with it.  Remember the "run on the bank" scene in "It's a Wonderful Life?"  Similar situation.  

All the McKee's had left was their old car, a 1928 Whippet, and O.D. began selling "Virginia Dare Cakes" for 5 cents out of the trunk of the family car in and around Chatanooga, Tennessee.  After saving much of their earnings, they had enough for the down payment on a purchase of a local bakery, "Jacks Cookie Company."  

Ruth took an active role in the business, unusual for a woman at that time, and became a full-time managing partner of the new bakery.  O.D. would travel around Tenneessee making sales and, along the way, creating innovative ways to produce the product.  Ruth would manage the office and the handful of employees, and in her spare time, would help bake the product.   

A wise man once said, "never do business with friends or family," and they were right.  In 1934, Ruth's father, Symon King, joined the business as a partner.  O.D. wanted to continue expanding the business, but the conservative Symon argued he should be happy with the success he had already.

In 1936, O.D. and Ruth wanted badly to grow the business and called it quits.  Selling their share to Ruth's father Symon, they moved from Chatanooga to Charlotte, North Carolina, and opened a new bakery. At the same time, King renamed the old business to King's Bakery and remained in operation. 

The business in Charlotte had moderate success, but it was during this time that O.D. invented the company's oldest and most often best-selling product:  the Oatmeal Creme Pie.  

Around 1952 the McKee's closed up shop and moved back to Chatanooga to take care of Ruth's ill brother Cecil.  Cecil had taken over King's from his father Symon, and not wanting to run someone else's business for them, they purchased the bakery back from the family in 1954 and renamed it the McKee Baking Company.  

In 1957, the company opened a second bakery in Collegedale, Tennessee.  Two years later, in 1959, the Nutty Bar (now Nutty Buddy) was born.  These wafer cookies filled with peanut butter remain in the top three best-sellers for Little Debbie today in 2021.  

During the late '50s the business flourished, and in 1960, O.D. struck gold.  O.D. had an innovative idea to package his snack cakes together into "family packs."  These individually wrapped baked goods would be sold as a package deal.  


The only problem was, now that they had the idea, they needed a new brand name to go with it since it had been decided amongst management that the McKee name was too boring.  One day, after being inspired by a photo of his four-year-old granddaughter in her favorite straw hat, he decided to name the new family pack of cakes "Little Debbie."  O.D. took that iconic photo of Debra McKee in her straw hat and had famous pin-up artist Pearl Mann recreate the photo and make Debbie look a few years older than her young four years.  

O.D. didn't tell Debbie, or her parents for that matter, that her name and likeness were used for the product until the first package came off the production line.  Debbie's parents were unhappy at first, but I'm sure they got over it pretty quick once the money started coming in.  It worked out for Debbie, too, as she is currently the Executive Vice President of McKee Foods.

These new Little Debbie snack cakes, and O.D.'s "family packs" of the original snack cake, the Oatmeal Creme Pie, were an instant hit.  In the first 10 months of sales, the company sold over 14 million snack cakes.  The Oatmeal Creme Pie is still the best seller for the company today.

In 1962, O.D. was traveling and attended a European trade show searching for a new idea to bring home to America.  There, he saw a "roulade."  A roulade is technically a rolled pastry or meat-filled with various items, and in this case, it was a rolled cake filled with creme.  The Swiss Roll was born!  In 1963, the Little Debbie brand rolled out the Swiss Roll, and it still remains in the top-three best sellers of the company.
In 1964, the iconic red bow-tie was added to the logo for packaging. 

Another iconic Little Debbie snack made its debut in 1966, at the time called a Jelly Roll.  Its name was changed to Strawberry Shortcake Rolls in 1994.  Like a Swiss Roll, this one is filled with a strawberry and creme filling and is dipped in vanilla.

Capitalizing on the 1969 moon landing, Little Debbie introduced Moon Crunch Snacks in 1970.  This soft cookie was coated in crunchy rice and caramel and then dipped in chocolate fudge.  Two years later, the product's name was changed to what we know it today, the Star Crunch Cosmic Cookie.  


In 1985, Little Debbie was officially sold coast-to-coast in the United States.  To mark achieving nationwide coverage, McKee launched a four-year television ad campaign featuring comedian and celebrity impersonator Rich Little.  Rich would appear as many familiar faces, like Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," and Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."  

That same year, in 1985, Little Debbie introduced the iconic Christmas Tree Cake.  Shaped like a triangle until 2012 (when the scalloped "branches" were added), this classic snack cake can be found at many Christmas parties even today.  It wasn't until 1999 that the Brownie was given seasonal makeovers as well, and the Christmas Tree Brownie is my personal favorite Little Debbie snack.


Little Debbie made its debut on the big screen in 1989 with Disney's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."  A giant Oatmeal Creme Pie was featured during the movie. A giant version was later rebuilt at Disney's MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios) in Orlando, Florida, for the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure" children's play area.

One of the most popular snack cakes, the Little Debbie Vanilla Snack Cake, received a rebranding in 1991 and changed to Zebra Cakes.  The name change was a success with kids and adults alike, and sales quickly soared.

In 1994, the Little Debbie Honey Bun hit store shelves nationwide.  To me, the Honey Bun is synonymous with my school cafeteria.  They were placed front and center right in front of the cash register, and these Little Debbie snacks taunted me every day.  These days, I don't think I can go into a gas station or a convenience store without seeing them somewhere!

During the late 1990s in America, "Cosmic Bowling" became a very popular activity for teenagers and families.  In "Cosmic Bowling," you play a regular bowling game with the lights turned out, played with glow in the dark bowling balls.  Black lights, LED lights, and laser light shows create the atmosphere as music videos blast rock music.  It's actually a lot of fun, even though I can hear younger reader's eyes roll.  In 1999, Little Debbie joined the trend and created the Cosmic Brownie.  Most consumers of Little Debbie assume that Cosmic is an outer space reference.  In a way, it is, but even Little Debbie's website says it was created with bowling alleys in mind.  It also tied in nicely with the Cosmic Star Crunch Cookie, which indeed had something to do with outer space.  


In 2006, at the absolute peak of NASCAR's popularity, Little Debbie joined the fun and sponsored the #21 Ford Fusion driven by veteran driver Ken Schrader.  Through the years, the sponsorship would change teams or drivers; most recently, Little Debbie sponsored the #47 Toyota Camry driven by Marcos Ambrose.  It appears Little Debbie stopped sponsoring race cars in the 2018- 2019 season.  

The NASCAR sponsorship caused quite the stir for the company when the public noticed that on Saturdays, the Little Debbie logo was covered up or removed from the public eye.  The fans swarmed online and demanded to know why.  The reason for doing so was because Little Debbie's founders, the McKee family, are Seventh Day Adventist Christians.  

In following these beliefs, the entire company has observed the sabbath from sundown Friday to sunset Saturday evening.  Naturally, this extends to all promotional agreements, too.  The company is proud of its involvement in charities, especially child-focused ones, but will refuse to participate in any event that takes place "Friday night or Saturday."  The Little Debbie company guidelines "acknowledge the providence of God in our continued success," and their beliefs form the foundation of how they deal with their employees and customers.


Last year, in 2020, Little Debbie celebrated its 60th Anniversary.  To mark the celebration, they unveiled Unicorn Cakes.  Capitalizing on the nationwide Unicorn craze, these cakes are strawberry-flavored with layered creme and covered in white frosting with blue and purple stripes and candy glitter.  


As I did in the Hostess and Drake's articles, the following are the current product offerings, or as they say, "Bakery Items," that some come in a variety of flavors or seasonal offerings:

Brownies:  

  • Cosmic Brownie - Chocolate Brownie, with Fudge Icing, Colored Hard Chocolate Sprinkles 
  • Fudge Brownie - Chocolate Brownie, with Fudge Icing, Chopped Walnut Pieces
  • Turtle Brownie - Round Chocolate Brownie, Caramel and Fudge Topping, Roasted Peanut Pieces
  • Mini Brownies - Bite-Sized Chocolate Brownies served in Multi-Packs

Cakes:

  • Banana Twins - Two Banana Flavored Sponge Cakes with Creme Filling
  • Birthday Cakes - Vanilla Confetti Cake, with Creme Layers, Vanilla Icing, Rainbow Sprinkles
  • Chocolate Chip Cakes - Chocolate Cake, Creme Filling, Vanilla Icing, Chocolate Chips
  • Chocolate Cupcakes - Chocolate Cupcake, Creme Filled, Chocolate Icing, Vanilla Swirl Design
  • Cookies and Creme Cake - Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Icing, Chocolate Cookie Crumble Topping
  • Devil Cremes - Two Devil's Food Cakes with Creme Filling
  • Devil Square's Cake - Devil's Food Cake, Creme Filled, Fudge Icing 
  • Fancy Cakes - Vanilla Cake, Vanilla Icing, Decorative Vanilla Frosting Swirls
  • Frosted Fudge Cakes - Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Creme Filling, Fudge Frosting
  • Strawberry Shortcake Roll - Vanilla Cake Roll with Strawberry Filling and Creme
  • Swiss Roll - Classic Chocolate Cake Roll with Creme Filling, Chocolate Frosting
  • Zebra Cakes - Vanilla Cake, Creme Filling, Vanilla Frosting, Fudge Icing Drizzle
  • Zebra Cake Roll - Vanilla Cake Roll with Creme Filling, Vanilla Icing, Fudge Drizzle
  • Unicorn Cakes - Strawberry Cake, Creme Filled, Vanilla Frosting, Blue and Purple Candy Glitter

Cookies:

  • Banana Marshmallow - Two Vanilla Cookies, Marshmallow Filling, Banana Flavor Icing
  • Chocolate Chip Creme Pies - Two Chocolate Chip Cookies, Creme Filling
  • Chocolate Marshmallow - Two Vanilla Cookies, Marshmallow Filling, Chocolate Fudge Icing
  • Fudge Rounds - Two Chocolate Cookies, Fudge Creme, "Waves" of Chocolate Icing
  • Jelly Creme Pies - Two Vanilla Cookies, Creme, and Strawberry Jelly Filling, Fudge Frosting
  • Oatmeal Creme Pies - Two Oatmeal Cookies, Creme Filling
  • Peanut Butter Creme Pie - Two Homestyle Peanut Butter Cookies, Peanut Butter Creme Filling
  • Raisin Creme Pies - Two Vanilla Cookies, Creme Filled, Topped with Raisins
  • Star Crunch Cosmic Cookie - One Soft Cookie, Caramel and Crispy Rice Topping, Fudge Coated

Donuts

  • Cinnamon Sugar Mini
  • Double Chocolate Mini
  • Frosted Mini
  • Glazed Mini
  • Glazed Sticks
  • Powdered Mini
  • Strawberry Mini

Mini Muffins

  • Brownie Muffins
  • Birthday Muffins
  • Blueberry Muffins
  • Chocolate Chip Muffins
  • Strawberry Shortcake Muffins

Pastries

  • Honey Buns - Soft Pastry, Honey and Cinnamon with Glaze Topping
  • Pecan Spinwheels - Soft Pastry, Rolled with Cinnamon and Pecan Pieces

Pies

  • Apple - Classic Flaky Pie with Apple Fruit Filling
  • Cherry - Classic Flaky Pie with Cherry Fruit Filling

Snack Bars

  • Fig Bars - Soft Cookie with Fig Filling
  • Nutty Buddy Wafer Bars - Crunchy Wafer Bars, Peanut Butter Filling, Fudge Coating
  • Peanut Butter Crunch Bars - Crunchy Cookie, Real Peanut Butter Middle, Fudge Coating
  • Salted Caramel Cookie Bars - Crunchy Cookie, Caramel and Fudge Coating

I must say, finding information about Little Debbie snacks that have been discontinued has been very difficult.  Either the company hasn't had many failures that required removal from store shelves, or they were so bad that people didn't care enough to remember them.  In a world where people put everything online, I find that hard to believe.  

I did, however, find a handful of Little Debbie snacks that have disappeared over the years.  They are:


Spice Cakes - Back before people were obsessed with everything pumpkin spice, these little spice cakes were produced during the early 80s and 90s.   They seem like they'd be a season hit to me, especially now that it's so trendy to have pumpkin spice added into everything.  

Coconut Sticks  -  I found this on one of those "List-icles" websites like BuzzFeed or whatever put up, as I've never heard of it.  Apparently, the Coconut Sticks are so rare that photos don't even exist of them.  They were very similar to the Nutty Buddy in that they were a wafer-type cookie filled with a sweet coconut creme filling, covered in vanilla icing, and sprinkled with toasted coconut.  


Fudge Dipped Banana Rolls - These Swiss Roll like vanilla cakes were introduced in 2016 but have seemingly disappeared from stores nationwide.  The Little Debbie website doesn't even list them anymore in their "Baked Items" section.  


Red Velvet Cakes - Like the Fudge Dipped Banana Rolls, these snack cakes were introduced and disappeared quickly.  It seems they tried to capitalize on the "red velvet" craze that swept the country a few years back when shows like "Cake Boss" became very popular. 


PB Richies -  These chocolate cakes were dipped in chocolate and filled with a peanut butter filling.  Pretty similar to Drake's Funny Bones, these disappeared shortly after McKee Foods took over Drake's as a likely stream-lining of the product line.   


Raisin Creme Pie and the Jelly Creme Pie - These two are technically not discontinued (as of February 2021) but are extremely hard to find in most of America.  They are listed on the company website, and I included them in the "active" list above, so I guess you could technically order them to be shipped to you from Little Debbie if they suit your fancy.  According to an interview featuring Mike Gloekler, the Corporate Communications Manager for McKee Foods, some Little Debbie snacks have very strong regional followings that make wider distribution impossible. "It is difficult to explain taste preference," says Gloekler. "We have a couple of items, namely Jelly Creme Pies and Raisin Creme Pies, that are particularly strong in the rural South and do not have much of a following in other areas of the country."



To be honest, when I started this Little Debbie article, I didn't think that there would be much to write about.  Boy, was I wrong! 

If you found this article informative, please go back and read my article about Hostess (by clicking HERE) or my article about Drake's Cakes (by clicking HERE.)  

Join me next week as we start the final chapter (for now) of my Lunchbox Snacks of YesterYear as we cover one of the larger baked goods companies... Entenmanns!

3 comments

  1. I Eat at least 3 boxed of Spin wheels every two weeks THE 18 count boxes
    And they sell quickly
    So why take them off the shelf????

    ReplyDelete
  2. Are little Debbie snacks are they discontinued in convenience store

    ReplyDelete
  3. You forgot to mention the Spiced Christmas Reef cookie they stopped making in 2016. I was just talking to my brother about them.

    ReplyDelete