There Really Is a Little Debbie

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Betty Crocker might sound like someone’s mom or grandma who perfected family recipes in her kitchen at home, but she’s a total marketing fabrication. The same goes for Mrs. Butterworth. Though her personage may be featured on the company’s pancake syrup bottle, it’s rumored that the bottle-lady was modeled on actress Butterfly McQueen, not someone’s flour-covered mother or auntie.

But Little Debbie? Little Debbie was real. Not only was she real, she’s alive and well and a major player in the billion-dollar company.

In 1934 – the middle of the Great Depression - O.D. McKee and his wife bought a failing bakery and sold small cakes to hungry people for rock-bottom prices. After a couple of attempts and a couple of locations, the McKees had a huge success on their hands and had to expand the headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn., 13 times. They eventually added another building in Collegedale, Tenn.

In 1960, the McKees were ready to expand again, this time with mass production. They had the idea down – 12 individually wrapped cakes packed in a carton – but were scratching their heads over a name. Inspired by a picture of his four-year-old granddaughter in her favorite battered straw hat, O.D. decided to name the new cakes after her – Little Debbies. Neither Debbie nor her parents knew that she was the new face of the brand until after the first package came off the assembly line. Her parents weren’t thrilled, but it ended up working out - these days, Debra E. McKee-Fowler, pictured, is an executive vice president and serves on the board of directors for the company that still has her young face on the packages.

Fun fact: Little Debbie’s bestsellers are the Oatmeal Creme Pies, Swiss Cake Rolls and Nutty Bars (my personal favorite).

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February 17, 2012 - 4:30pm
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