The untold truth of Little Debbie

There was always something magical about opening up my lunch box as a kid and finding an Oatmeal Creme Pie or a Star Crunch waiting to be devoured. Growing up in the Northeast, we were generally a Tastykake family, but oh, would my eyes light up when the cheery box of Little Debbie snack cakes would make their way into the grocery cart. You may be familiar with the smiling girl on the box, but who is she? Is she even real? And what about all those signature creations? It's time to take a deeper dive into the sweet, sweet world of Little Debbie.

Little Debbie is real

Unlike some other food celebrities, Debbie is a real person. Debbie McKee-Fowler is all grown up still very much a part of the family business, currently serving as the executive vice president of McKee Foods. But how did she end up on the box in the first place? Thank packaging supplier Bob Mosher, who suggested the boss should use the name of a family member for a new product launch. 

O.D. McKee, Debbie's grandfather and the company's founder, quickly decided to use the name of his 4-year-old granddaughter. A photo he had of her wearing her favorite straw hat was used for the brand image but, surprise, he didn't tell her (or her parents!). Although they weren't exactly happy with the idea at first, the product was already up and running, and Debbie remained the smiling face of the brand.

Swiss Rolls are a knock-off

Swirls of chocolate cake and creamy filling, enrobed in a rich chocolate make the Swiss Rolls a must-have treat for kids of all ages. But, O.D. McKee couldn't take credit for creating this snack. His American version was inspired by a 1962 trip to a European trade show where he was looking for "the next big thing." The cake, a miniaturized version of a popular dessert called roulade, was being crafted by several bakeries he toured. Once back in Tennessee, he started production on two lines and the Swiss Rolls were added to the Little Debbie brand a year later, in 1963. It remains one of the top three best-selling items in the lineup.  

Cosmic cupcakes have been to space

Little Debbie has quite a love of space, with snack names including Star Crunch and Cosmic Brownies. But it's not just the name that makes these treats out of this world, they've also been to space! In 2014, Little Debbie, in partnership with the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, literally and figuratively launched their most recent galactic offering to date, Cosmic Cupcakes. The new cupcake, along with an astronaut bobble head, was attached to a weather balloon and, with a crowd counting down, were launched 18 miles into space.

The mysterious name change

Growing up, my favorite Little Debbie snack was the Nutty Bar. Peanut butter, wafers, chocolate, they were so good. But, as I started to do research for this article I found out that the Nutty Bar had vanished. Well, sort of. Somewhere along the way, as this imgur from November 2016 indicates, the Nutty Bar is now known as Nutty Buddy. 

There's no official word from Little Debbie or McKee Foods about the name change, but the brand page does now refer to the snack as Nutty Buddy. And the original Nutty Bar is still listed as the third of the top three sellers, which also proves that regardless of what they are called, I'm not the only one who holds a special place for this classic combo.

They've sent people to prison

The taste of Little Debbie is so good that some people think they're worth going to jail for, apparently. Over the past several years, there have been at least two known incidents of people stealing huge amounts of Little Debbie products. In North Carolina in 2015, brazen thieves cut through a fence where a distribution van was parked. Once inside, they broke into the van and stole 65 cases of snacks including Oatmeal Creme Pies, Swiss Rolls, and Honey Buns. In May 2017, two women were arrested in Jonesboro, Arkansas for stealing a trailer carrying $5,000 worth of snacks. The stolen trailer was eventually found and thankfully no one nor any cakes were harmed.

It started in a car

Debbie's grandparents, O.D. and Ruth McKee, got their start by selling pre-made cakes out of their car. In 1934, they took things a step further when they purchased a failing bakery. They worked side by side, and little by little their business dreams were realized. Today, over 80 years later, the company is still family-driven, and business decisions, as well as day-to-day operations continue to be overseen by several members of the McKee family.  

The original hit

The Oatmeal Creme Pie isn't just among the best-selling Little Debbie snacks, it is also the original. In 1935, O.D. McKee began tinkering with his hard oatmeal cookie recipe to produce a softer cookie. Once the cookie was perfected, he paired and filled them with a fluffy creme filling. Soon, the new Oatmeal Creme Pies were being sold for a nickel each, a sweet price for an even sweeter treat.

They started a big trend

In August 1960, McKee Foods made a splash in the snack aisle when they started selling boxes of individually wrapped snack cakes. The boxes were called "family packs" and the first products to be sold in such a manner were the classic Oatmeal Creme Pies. This was also the first time the brand's treats were marketed with their brand new name, Little Debbie. The idea was an immediate success and in the first 10 months of sales, over 14 million cakes were sold. 

The company founder was dyslexic

There's no question that O.D. McKee was an innovative, hard-working man. He was described as a visionary and continually looked for ways to improve his company, the community and the lives of his workers and family. Those would be great expectations for any man, and even more so for a man like O.D. McKee. When O.D. was in his mid 60s he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disability. Just goes to show you really can do whatever you put your mind to. 

There's a new mascot in town

For years, consumers have been greeted with the smiling face of little Debbie McKee on every box. In January 2017, a new mascot was unveiled — the Muffin Man. Now appearing on Mini Muffin and Mini Brownies, the Muffin Man was designed to help promote the oven-baked taste of their muffins, and to pay tribute to the hometown roots of the company. Those first muffins were baked in a one-oven bakery, and Little Debbie's creative team says that's what they wanted to capture on their 21st century packaging.

You might have noticed that the Muffin Man's muffins taste a little different, too, and you're not imaging things. A test group of hundreds of children and mothers picked the new recipe, and it took more than 200 recipes to get to that winning one.

The name "Little Debbie" came years after the company started

O.D. and Ruth McKee's company has its roots in an idea that started taking shape in 1933, but it wasn't actually called Little Debbie until the 1950s. So wait, what gives?

The story is a complicated — and obscure — bit of family history. In 1934, Ruth's father joined the company as a partner. Anyone who's ever worked with family might recognize this as a bad idea, and it wasn't long before they had a falling out. They had bought a bakery called Jack's Cookie Company, and when the partners split, Jack's was re-named King's Bakery while O.D. and Ruth went their own way. That was in 1936, and there's a strange gap in the official history of Little Debbie that makes it unclear just what happened in these years. It wasn't until 1952 that Ruth's brother, Cecil — who was running King's Bakery — offered up something of a reconciliation. The family's two bakeries were consolidated, and became the McKee Baking Company. It wasn't until the late 50s that the idea of using little Debbie as the Little Debbie came about, and the company finally got its name and logo decades after its inception.

Ruth McKee was a 100 percent partner

The Great Depression was a time when the roles of women were clearly defined, and that makes Ruth McKee's position as a full and active partner in Little Debbie so surprising. From the earliest days, Ruth worked managing the office and the employees while O.D. headed out to make the sales. She was responsible for purchasing, too, making sure they used only the best ingredients. She even hired the long-haul truck drivers that distributed their product across the country, and was known for telling them, "Every time I see one of our trucks on the road I pray for your safety." Hers was a full-time job, and it took up so much of Ruth's time that the family hired help to care for their three children while she worked.

She was credited for a great portion of the company's early success. Ruth was the grounded, sensible one to O.D.'s imaginative, out-of-the-box thinking, and it took both of them to make it work.

They have a great sense of humor

In 2015, Will Ferrell appeared on The Tonight Show dressed in Little Debbie's iconic hat and dress. He joked that he was the new face of Little Debbie, and went on to say that he only disciplines his kids dressed as the snack cake icon. "If I come around the corner dressed like this… oh, they know they did something wrong."

It's easy to watch that clip and think that you're going to find some angry comments from Little Debbie distancing themselves from the appearance, but quite the opposite happened. After the show aired, Little Debbie's PR representatives issued a statement saying, "In our opinion, Will Ferrell did justice to the cowgirl hat and the blue and white dress that are hallmarks of Little Debbie. We appreciate his enthusiasm in playing the part." While they went on to say that it wasn't an official partnership, they took the whole thing in the good-natured way it was meant.

Their company adheres to their Seventh Day Adventist beliefs

It's inevitable that the beliefs of a company's owners find their way into how the company is run, and for Little Debbie, you can find traces of their Seventh Day Adventist beliefs — but only if you look hard enough.

Traditionally, the entire company has observed the sabbath, closing from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. That extends to their promotional agreements, too. Little Debbie has been a longtime sponsor of NASCAR, but all their logos are removed or covered during each sabbath. When it comes to asking Little Debbie to sponsor an event, they're more than happy to get involved with charities and events that benefit particularly children, but will refuse events that take place on the sabbath — referred to in their company policies simply as "Friday night or Saturday activities." The Little Debbie Family Statement "acknowledges the providence of God in our continued success," and their beliefs form the foundation of how they deal with their employees.

Their recipe for success includes valuing their consumers, treating people well, and not asking any employee to do something they wouldn't do themselves. At the same time they believed in taking risks and overcoming setbacks, O.D. and Ruth McKee committed themselves to offering fair wages and a place to work that was so good people would stay there for decades.