[ taste test ]
Tasty Baking's soon-to-be new Georgia owner has promised to keep hundreds of locals baking at Tastykake factories, while making good on $25 million borrowed from state taxpayers. But Flowers Foods' mid-April purchase announcement failed to say much about what will actually happen to Philadelphia's beloved snack cakes. Will Flowers change the recipes? Get rid of my favorite flavor varieties? Will the "synergies" touted any time one company takes over another ruin what has been, up to now, the Mercedes of American snack-food brands?
This isn't just local pride talking. Former Tasty Baking marketing exec George Latella, now a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University, says people typically favor the brand they grew up eating — but I grew up in New England eating Drake's. And while I still have a soft spot for their apple pies, I've always thought Tasty products to be a step above Drake's, Hostess, Dolly Madison and Little Debbie, especially when it comes to their chocolate (typically dark, and of a much higher quality than competitors').
Will Flowers change that? As of now, the company isn't saying. "It would be premature to say anything before the sale goes through" (likely before July), says Flowers spokeswoman Mary Krier. But actions speak loud. And proof of Flowers' baking abilities are already on display in the region, via their Mrs. Freshley's snack-food brand.
Not familiar? That could be because you do your snack-food shopping in grocery stores rather than at vending machines, where the brand made its 1994 debut, or in dollar stores, where they are primarily found locally.
Mrs. Freshley's snack cakes are cheap — and cheap can be good coming off a recession. But are they as tasty as Tasty? That's the real question that I, a veteran of processed-food tasting for the syndicated Supermarket Sampler newspaper column, attempted to answer in the following Iron Chef-like taste-test of comparable Mrs. Freshley's and Tasty snacks.
Tastykake Rich Frosted Mini Donuts ($3.99 per 14-ounce box) vs. Mrs. Freshley's Frosted Mini Donuts ($1.69 per 11.5-ounce bag)
I'm a regular consumer of Tasty chocolate Mini Donuts. Their chocolate coating is darker and richer than any other brand (I've tried them all), and if they're really fresh, that coating snaps when you bite (although they are not as mini as their competitors, or as I'd like, and they were better when they had trans fats). Mrs. Freshley's are no match, although hers aren't horrible. The main problem is a waxy chocolate coating that doesn't taste much like chocolate. They're as good as Hostess, probably.
Mrs. Freshley's Mini Donuts might have benefited in this matchup from the fact that I bought them on only the second day of their 30-day packaged-specified shelf life. The Tasty Mini Donut box, by contrast, boasts of being "Made Fresh Daily" and was coded to be good for only a week. (Flowers extends the shelf life of its fancifully named Mrs. Freshley's brand — there is of course no such person — with the preservatives used by virtually all packaged snack-food makers and also, Latella says, by shipping frozen.)
Tastykake Glazed Honey Bun (50 cents per 2.5-ounce bun) vs. Mrs. Freshley's Honey Buns ($1 per box of six, 1.75-ounce buns)
Honey Buns are signature items for Mrs. Freshley's that have received accolades from Automatic Merchandiser and Convenience Store & Petroleum Retailers magazines; they have roots in the Griffin Pie company that invented this breakfast treat. But this 1.75-ounce family pack version has an odd bear-claw shape, like a honey bun specimen from the Mütter. It's also denser, blander and less interesting than Tasty's, which is composed of distinct ropes of bready Danish pastry infused with cinnamon you can see and taste.
Tastykake Swiss Rolls ($3.99 per box of six, 2-ounce twin-packs) vs. Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls ($1 per box of six, 2-ounce twin-packs)
These two products have identical ingredient lists and nutrition facts, and, except for Tasty Swiss Rolls' white cardboard base, also look and taste the same — that is, like poor-quality, milk-chocolate-coated sugar wraps. It's as if Krier was wrong and Flowers had already imposed new, inferior Mrs. Freshley's standards.
Tastykake Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes ($1.59 per 3.5-ounce package of three cupcakes) vs. Mrs. Freshley's Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes (59 cents per 4-ounce package of two cupcakes)
With its white, squiggle-decorated top and plastic holster, Mrs. Freshley's Chocolate Cupcake clearly aims to imitate Hostess' style, but fails to meet even that low standard. Heavy and blandly sugary I can deal with, but not this cake's bitter chemical aftertaste. Tasty's cupcakes are smaller, but the cake's fine crumb and taste resembles homemade, and the milk-chocolate icing is actually fudgy.
Tasty's creamless Chocolate Cupcake actually sells better, but Mrs. Freshley's has no equivalent. Nor does Mrs. Freshley's offer anything like Tasty's best-selling, signature Krimpets and Kandy Kake discs, which is why they weren't part of this taste test. This could be a good thing for Tasty fans, at least according to St. Joe's prof Latella. "There could be some convergence [of recipes] when it comes to crossover commodity products, like doughnuts and honey buns," he says. "But I'd be very surprised if they touched the pies, Kandy Kakes or cupcakes."
I hope he's right. Still, I've already begun stockpiling Chocolate Kandy Kakes and Tasty chocolate Mini Donuts in my freezer, Mrs. Freshley's shipping-style, just in case.