By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
The signs outside the Hostess Bakery Outlet Store in Barbourville said “50% Off” on all baked goods, as motorists whizzed by U. S. 25E on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
For most people, it was a great deal. Breads, buns and rolls being sold at fantastic prices, just in time for Thanksgiving.
But when one looked closer at the window, another sign simply said, “Going Out of Business.”
At the end of the day Tuesday, the Hostess Store, long a staple at the corner of 25E and Daniel Boone Drive, was shutting its doors for good.
The conflict between Hostess Brands and one of its unions caused the bankrupt company to shut down and liquidate its assets last Friday, according to the company. Legendary baked goods, such as Hostess Twinkies, Ho Ho’s, Ding Dongs, Hostess Cupcakes and other delicacies went off the shelves first.
On Tuesday, the outlet stores in Barbourville and London, along with the distribution center in London, were closing down and letting people go.
“As far as we know, they’re telling us to sell out. My boss called me just a while ago, and told me to sell out today, take the shelves down. The bread, buns and rolls that’s left over will be picked up and taken to a food pantry tomorrow, where it will be donated,” said an employee of the Barbourville store who spoke on the condition of anonymity Tuesday.
The employee is one of 30 affected by the shutdown in the two towns.
The Hostess distribution center, warehouse and nearby outlet store on U. S. 25 in London are also shutting the oven off. A total of 27 employees are affected in London at both places.
“We told our employees that as of 6 p.m. Friday we’d be closing down, and we’ve told our customers that they would have to find another supplier for their baked goods. We’re waiting on the direction of my company. It’s a very tough time for a lot of people,” said an employee in management at the London distribution center Tuesday, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He added the stores have been selling baked goods at a reduced price, and because they’re perishable products, they have to find a place for the breads, buns and rolls. The employee noted local food banks will get what’s not sold. Among those getting the loaves and rolls are the Barbourville Children’s Home and food pantries associated with local churches.
Three persons at the Barbourville store are affected by the Hostess closing, including the employee who spoke in this story. The employee has worked at the store for 20 years, while another employee worked there for 17 years. A third person working part-time put in time with Hostess for three years.
The closings couldn’t have come at a worse time — the advent of the holiday season.
“It will affect us a lot. The holidays will be rough. I’m looking at unemployment now. As far as insurance is concerned, my family — we’re gonna hurt. My husband and I have a son who’s disabled from a car wreck, and he has severe brain injuries. He’s learning to learn everything all over again,” the Barbourville employee said.
On Monday, a tractor trailer load of baked goods from Knoxville, Tenn., came to the Barbourville Hostess store. On the shelves, rows of Merita rolls were going for 70 cents. There were plenty of Merita hamburger buns and hot dog buns, too. Most of those were also being sold at 70 cents, while big two-pound loaves of Merita Old Fashioned bread were going for 75 cents each.
There were no Hostess cupcakes, or Twinkies, anywhere to be found. The big red display where they were located was empty, as were a number of other shelves in the store.
“The Hostess cakes sold out last Saturday. The cakes were our biggest seller,” said the employee in Barbourville.
A steady stream of customers came inside the store in the early afternoon. With the sounds of Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing the group’s hit tune “Stuck Like Glue” from a nearby radio, it was business as usual at Hostess — but everyone knew it was not for long.
Amy Castle of Barbourville came in to buy a loaf of baked goods for her family of six, including four children whose ages range from five to 13 years old. She’s shopped there for at least 10 years, and knows those who work there well. But she admitted Tuesday’s purchase has a bittersweet feeling to a lot of people.
“It’s sad. I like shopping here. My kids cried when they heard the news (of Hostess shutting down). My kids love the Twinkies, the donuts, the Ho-Ho’s and Ding Dongs. Almost everything they like they’ve sold off the shelves. I told them hopefully they’ll come back in business. I hope they’ll open back up,” Castle said at the store’s checkout counter.
Anna Caudill, of Barbourville, shopped at the Hostess store ever since they opened the place up. She came in Tuesday to buy a package of rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. Caudill ended up buying another item before she left — a loaf of bread.
“When I heard they were going out of business, I sure didn’t like it one bit. I was looking for some pies, but since they have none, I’ll have to go somewhere else,” Caudill stated.
Nearby, a man grabbed several loaves of bread with both hands and headed towards the checkout counter.
“I’ve got 15 people to feed,” he noted.
A few feet away, a woman came in to buy some bread as well.
“My daughter said, ‘What am I gonna do? No more banana nut muffins?’ She’s gonna flip her wig.”
Samantha and David Brewer, of Corbin, stopped in to buy some bread and rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. They brought their son along, and agreed his sweet tooth — just like thousands of others in the area — are missing some sweet treats.
“We come up here every week. Our son loves donuts, and when they didn’t have donuts, he was upset. This place is gonna be missed,” Samantha pointed out.
“It’s going to affect a lot of people here in Barbourville and Knox County. A lot of folks on low incomes and fixed incomes come here to get a break on the price of bread, rolls, buns and cakes,” the Barbourville store employee said as three customers left the building, arms filled with baked goods in bags.
Shortly after 1 p.m. the phone rings, and the employee answers it. Talking on the phone with one hand, the person fills up the bags while the shopper pays for his order.
After the purchase is complete, the employee hangs up.
“A driver told me on the phone that the negotiations are about the ones that went on strike. They want their vacation days and pay that was due to them. That’s what he just said.”
As of this writing, the story doesn’t have an ending.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported a bankruptcy judge ordered Hostess and its second largest union to go into mediation and try to resolve their differences. According to ABC News on Monday, three companies — including ConAgra and Flowers Foods — have been named as reportedly interested in buying the iconic brand.
All that means nothing to those who will lose their jobs in Barbourville and London, after the Hostess stores and distribution center close. Unlike those people who’ve missed the baked goods and the cream-filled filling of the brand’s beloved Twinkies, those facing unemployment and an uncertain future will be filled with emptiness as Thanksgiving arrives Thursday.
“I don’t know how to put it in words. After coming here to work for 20 years, I won’t know what to do. It’s going to affect us all,” the employee in Barbourville quietly said.