Exclusive: Hostess c.e.o. on innovation, acquisition

by Monica Watrous
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William Toler, Hostess
William Toler, c.e.o. of Hostess Brands, said the company's innovation is inspired by what consumers think is important.

CHICAGO — Hostess Brands, L.L.C. has been busy. In addition to launching several new and reformulated products (more on that later), the Kansas City-based company last week quietly acquired Superior Cake Products, Inc., Southbridge, Mass., a maker of in-store bakery items under the Superior on Main brand.

“Superior on Main is an in-store bakery company that makes wonderful éclairs, brownie bites, madeleines, black and white cookies, very high-quality products that sell into club and grocery and other in-store bakery outlets,” said William D. Toler, chief executive officer of Hostess Brands. “We’re going to use that as part of our strategy to move into that part of the store.”

At the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 24-26 in Chicago, Hostess highlighted its new line of brownies featuring Milky Way and M&M’s candy brands, which was developed in a partnership with Mars, Inc. Additionally, the company touted the recent revival of the iconic Suzy Q’s snack cake and featured its newly reformulated line of Mini Muffins.

Superior on Main baked goods
Superior Cake Products makes in-store bakery items under the Superior on Main brand.

During an exclusive interview at the show, Mr. Toler discussed the company’s innovation strategy, as well as its response to consumer demand for simple ingredients.

Food Business News: Tell me about the Mini Muffins reformulation.

Mr. Toler: We’re very pleased to have been able to convert our Mini Muffins to whole grain. It has 8 grams of whole grains per serving. We think these are great tasting and healthier alternatives for the Mini Muffin consumer. It gives us an opportunity to provide some news in the category and provide a little differentiation for our consumer base who is looking for some permissible indulgence or friendly labels and healthier snacking.

Do they meet the school snack requirements?

Mr. Toler: We are working on that right now and hope to have (School Nutrition Association) approval and be ready for schools later this year.

Hostess Mini Muffins
Hostess converted its Mini Muffins line to whole grain and removed high-fructose corn syrup.

In addition to adding whole grains, you removed high-fructose corn syrup.

Mr. Toler: We have been able to go to whole grain and also clean up the label, take out some ingredients that have caused question over time and give us an overall better product, we think. We tested this extensively with consumers, and our standards have always been parity or better with our prior, and also parity or better with our competition, and we’ve been able to prove these are products that meet those standards.

Are there any plans to extend this clean label initiative to other products in the portfolio?

Mr. Toler: We are continuing to look at opportunities to improve our ingredient panel, whether that’s simplification, to remove our ingredients that are sensitive or we don’t think are optimal for our products, but first and foremost, we are an indulgent snack and we want to deliver on taste, but we want to do that in as reasonable of a way as we can.

Suzy Q's, Hostess
Hostess revived Suzy Q's snack cakes after fans begged for their return.

Why did Hostess revive Suzy Q’s? Were consumers asking for it?

Mr. Toler: It’s probably on our social channels the most frequently discussed and often requested item that we’ve had from the old company to the new company. As you see on the boxes, they say, “She’s back… because Rob’s been asking for it” or “Chris demanded we deliver it.” Those are (based on) actual comments consumers made to us on social media, so we put them on the box to make it a little more of that connected message with our raving fans who love Suzy Q’s.

Is the product the same as before?

Mr. Toler: They’re very similar. They’re all about the crème. They’re all about the stickiness. A little fun-messy to eat. And they’re made in a very similar fashion to how they were made before.

Hostess brownies with M&Ms, Milky Way
Hostess recently partnered with Mars to launch Hostess brownies with M&M's and Milky Way.

How did the partnership with Mars come about?

Mr. Toler: We contacted Mars. Brownies are a white space for us; it’s a segment of the category that we didn’t play in. And we wanted to do something to elevate the brownie experience with the Hostess brand, and we found the best way to do that was to co-brand with a great partner like Mars. And we’ve done it with M&M’s and Milky Way, and we have hopes and plans to do it with other of their brands in the future.

What other innovation is in the works at Hostess?

Mr. Toler: We had a very good seasonal effort in Valentine’s. We did the heart-shaped Ding Dong cakes. The “I love you” cakes were a lot of fun for kids. We’ve had a good cupcake craze season, and now we’re kicking off our partnership with our Summer of Twinkies and our Ghostbusters relationship that will be touted over the summer.

Hostess I Love You Valentine's Day Cakes
For Valentine's Day, Hostess released heart-shaped Ding Dong Cakes called "I love you" cakes.

We think limited-time offers and seasonal flavors are an important part of keeping the category fresh. They give consumers a different flavor profile to move in and out of as they rotate across our portfolio, and we think this category is driven by impulse, driven by news, driven by flavor, and those kind of offerings are important for our innovation and important for our pipeline.

How does the company identify popular flavors for limited-edition products?

Mr. Toler: We look around the store, we talk to consumers, we talk to customers. Our innovation process has multiple inputs. We do flavor work. We do look at other categories. Ice cream is a great category to use as a benchmark for where flavor work comes from. Chocolates and candies are another place we look.

And we also listen to our customers. We try to be a good company that partners with our customers and comes up with ideas that they think are important to drive their category and their business as well.
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READER COMMENTS (18)

By KrystalK 12/6/2017 3:14:40 PM
The "revived" Suzy Q's are nasty... I was excited when I saw and bought them - even through the package, I could tell something was different... Then I opened and took a bite -put the rest back in the package and threw it away. It was gross - the original Suzy Q was my FAVORITE - but I will NOT buy this version again, it was disgusting... please bring back the OLD one...

By Bonnie Noland 8/1/2017 12:19:36 PM
Hostess needs to redo their Suzy Q cakes. Restore the 2 cakes in package and restore the original taste. The crème and cake are not the same in the remake. Get this right and you have customers for life! I am waiting for the original Suzy Q!

By William Harrison 6/13/2017 9:19:10 PM
So so disappointed in the new Susie Q. The box claims to be the same but there isn't anything about it that reminds me of the good ole Susie Q's. I'll never waste my money on them again.

By Don 5/27/2017 11:07:56 PM
Thumbs up on all the negative comments on Suzy Q comeback. I like everyone else wandered what happened to Suzy Q when Hostess fixed their issues and started making snacks again. Happiness quickly turned into major disappointment when I looked at the new Suzy Q, I knew right away it wasn't the same! Maybe the CEO will get the message and fix the problem!!

By Lane 3/25/2017 9:42:39 AM
The new suzy is awful. Stale tasteless cake and chemical tasting filling. You've ruined a wonderful snack cake. Please stop making these.

By Thomas Jenkins 3/14/2017 10:13:15 PM
You brought back Suzy Qs but you botched it all up from the cake to the filling. Totally disappointed, you should find the original recipe and use it! Not impressed.

By Wanda Ellis 1/14/2017 2:25:56 PM
Why did you cut back the size and creaminess if Suzi Q's. They were my favorite. Now they are just oblong slinder peaces of black cake with small amt of filling. You ruined them. If you brought back the size they used to be and do the same filling your sakes would skyrocket. So disappointed in them. Also so many preservatives box I got was good for 2 months. My 2nd one I loved was twinkies. I still like them but they are not as fresh. Again expiration date is 2 months out. And They are rubbery when you bite into a Twinkie How come you changed the ingredients ?????

By RR3 11/23/2016 10:50:21 AM
I have to agree with everyone else. The Suzy-Q I grew up with was far superior over the "new" one. The old one was a cake by itself, not a block that was chopped from a huge one. It had rounded edges, bigger, more creme, fluffier and most of all NOT STALE! What a disappointment. I was hoping Dolly Madison had something similar then found Hostess owns them too. I guess I'll just eat Little Debbie's. Never stale.

By Elizabeth Lassiter 11/18/2016 3:02:44 PM
I really enjoyed suzy'q until the last few month's when I found a store that sells them.They are dry stale.I bought some from one store which sells them individually and they were sole at 75 cent per package. They had mold and fuzzy stuff on them.The next store had some for the same price dry with mold.I usually open and start eating but who ever buy them need to look firist.I think the CEO of the company need to check up on his products before someone gets real sick.

By Ptrisha S 11/11/2016 11:51:01 PM
I Love the old Suzy Qs and like others here, I was very happy to see them back. I bought a box, and couldn't wait to eat one... the dissapointment came upon opening the box... This IS NOT the Suzy Q I remember...the moist and fudgie, cream filled, squashed into its package in a chocolaty mess...Suzy Q of old...this imposter is half as wide and resembles a pumice stone in both looks, and texture... and very nearly in taste. I took one bite and it was like the driest most stale cake I've ever had. Had to pawn em off on some little kids that don't know any better. Very dissapointed...Step up your game Hostess...these things are awful. Ten thumbs down and a huge frownie face. ;(

By Raymond Greer 11/2/2016 10:40:11 PM
You need to go back to the Original recipe !

By Dalila Solorio 11/1/2016 5:08:56 PM
SUZY Q'S USED TO BE MY FAVORITE BOUGHT THE OTHER DAY AND NOT THE SAME NOT A FAVORITE ANY MORE :( WHAT HAPPENED WERE MORE CHOCOLATE FLAVOR AND MOIST MORE CREAME FILLED.

By Chris Murphy 10/25/2016 2:02:26 PM
Is the product the same as before? Mr. Toler: They’re very similar. They’re all about the crème. They’re all about the stickiness. A little fun-messy to eat. And they’re made in a very similar fashion to how they were made before. Shows how much he knows about the product. The revival version is only the same in appearance (and barely that). It's a horrible rendition of the original. Find the old recipe and maybe you'll have happy customers. Thanks for nothing, meanwhile. :(

By Susan 10/24/2016 8:28:07 PM
Many moons ago Hostess made Susie Q's, they were their the bomb. What happened. They changed, dryer, lighter in color, tasteless. Cream is good but you cut way back on that too for the amount we get. They are terrible. I will not buy those anymore.

By Gary Zyznar 10/22/2016 11:17:49 AM
You changed the cake recipe and your Suzy Q's are horrible. Tasted one and threw 11.5 in the trash. What happened to the deep devils food chocalate cake?

By Duncan Speel 9/29/2016 5:57:01 PM
The return of Suzy Q is a BIG disappointment, smaller, dryer and less cream.

By Matthew Orlowski 9/26/2016 12:56:12 PM
Being a longtime lover of HOSTESS, I am very disappointed with the "New SUZY-Q" Tastes NOTHING like the original. Somethings should NEVER be touched!!

By mike lambert 8/16/2016 4:53:42 PM
OMG----I almost broke my neck as I passed a center isle display in WalMart. It has SUZI Q's on it !!! WHAT?? I have missed them sooooo much. Thank you Hostess for bring it back