Little Debbie, the snack brand recognized in grocery stores across the country, and its links to a longtime area company have reached a golden point this year.
Fifty years after what is now McKee Foods Corp. adopted the Little Debbie brand and image, it remains as important to the company and its future as when it was launched, according to Mike Gloekler, corporate communication and public relations manager for Collegedale, Tenn.-based McKee.
"It represents the wholesome image of our products and innovation that has carried the company throughout the years," he said. It's become an "American icon."
Contributed Photo Customers in 1963 meet then Debbie McKee, the family member whose face gave rise to the Little Debbie image associated with McKee Foods.
But how the brand became what many see as a household name was essentially an accident back in 1960, said Chris McKee, executive vice president for marketing and sales at McKee Foods.
"A packaging salesman came in and told my grandfather (O.D. McKee) that he thought McKee Baking was a boring name for a baking company," he said. "So my grandfather asked what do you think would be a better name?"
"The salesmen suggested he name it after one of his grandchildren. He started listing the names of his grandchildren and when he got to Debbie, the salesman said he liked it," Mr. McKee said.
O.D. McKee, a co-founder of the company, added "Little" in front the name, while his wife, co-founder Ruth, chose a black-and-white photo of a young Debbie in a cowboy hat, which was then drawn by an artist to become the face of the brand. Little Debbie, who today is Debbie McKee-Fowler, works as an executive at McKee Foods.
Today's snack foods giant was founded by the McKees in 1934 after purchasing a small bakery on Main Street in downtown Chattanooga, converting a cookie shop into a 5 cent bakery with three employees.
The company changed its name from McKee Baking to McKee Foods in 1991 and today it has more than $1 billion in annual sales and in excess of 6,000 employees nationally.
Mr. Gloekler said the company plans to expand in North America and hopes to create new products that could become classics.
McKee in spotlight
* First bakery to sell individually wrapped cakes in a multipack carton.
* Offers more than 150 varieties of Little Debbie family pack snacks
* In 2008, the company recycled more than 4,500 tons of cardboard as part of efforts to be environmentally conscious
* Employs more than 3,000 people in Tennessee, many of whom are in Collegedale
Source: McKee Foods Corp. Web site
"We still plan to focus on the U.S. market and because consumers are demanding more convenience and value, we see strong sales growth in our future," Chris McKee said.
That look to the future also encompasses the Little Debbie name with a Little Debbie lookalike contest that moves to the selection of a winner next month in Atlanta. The winner will be featured on select boxes of company products and receive a $5,000 college scholarship.
As McKee Foods enhances the Little Debbie image, it also retains a commitment to a motto that Mr. Gloekler said O.D. McKee adapted from famed inventor Thomas Edison.
"Find a better way -- that's what's driven this company for the 75 years that this company has been around," Mr. Gloekler said. "We focus on finding a better way to do things."