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.