A sweet 50 years: Little Debbie Swiss Rolls marks golden anniversary

photo Tim Dyess and Gary Bang play the Swiss alphorn, and Jimmy, a Bernese mountain dog, and his handler Carolyn Crockett greet attendees during a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of McKee's Swiss Rolls on Thursday at the Miller Plaza Waterhouse Pavilion in Chattanooga.
photo Swiss Rolls are lined up during a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of McKee's Swiss Rolls on Thursday at the Miller Plaza Waterhouse Pavilion in Chattanooga.

ABOUT MCKEE FOODS* Headquarters: Collegedale, Tenn.* Started: 1934 by O.D. and Ruth McKee* Employees: More than 5,000 nationally* Annual sales: $1.2 billionSource: McKee Foods Corp.

Some people peel them and lick off the filling first. Others freeze them and then eat the snack cakes.

About a half-dozen stories of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls emerged Thursday as McKee Foods marked the 50th year of the product that's now one of the Collegedale company's top sellers.

Chief executive Mike McKee said it was his grandfather and business founder O.D. McKee who brought back the idea of Swiss Rolls from a business trip to Europe, creating an "instant hit" in the U.S.

"He was known then for his relentless pursuit of innovation, both in product offered and the way he made them," the CEO told a group of more than 100 people in downtown Chattanooga.

O.D. McKee in 1962 took part in a European trade show and visited several bakeries "looking for the next big thing," Mike McKee said.

Several companies in Europe already were making mini Swiss rolls based on a popular dessert known as a roulade, he said. One of those businesses, J. Lyons & Co. in London, allowed the elder McKee to tour a European plant.

"He learned how to bake, fill and roll Swiss rolls on a large scale," the chief executive said, adding that his grandfather is reported to have sketched out plans for building a Swiss roll line in his factory that night.

When McKee returned to Collegedale, he bought an electric oven and started a pair of production lines for Swiss Rolls.

When the snack cakes started coming from the factory in 1963, about 300 cases were baked per shift.

Today, according to McKee Foods, millions of cases of Swiss Rolls are sold annually by the company that's ranked No. 1 in the industry nationally by sales. McKee said Swiss Rolls are among the company's top five selling products each year.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke recalled having to eat a meal of not-too-desirable ground steak once a week when he was a youth. It was a Swiss Roll waiting as a dessert that made the meal bearable, he quipped.

Berke added that today, he sees a lot of energy in the city by small businesses starting up new ventures.

"This is a rebirth," he said, citing the work of the McKees and others who invested in their businesses here.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said that when he was in college in 1982 in Illinois, he first came across a Little Debbie Swiss Roll at a small grocery store. The packaging said that it was the official snack cake of the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, he said.

"I said to myself, 'Gosh, who would ever want to go to Knoxville, Tennessee,"' he joked. "Two things happened -- Swiss Rolls became a staple of my diet and within a year I was sitting in the law school at the great university in Knoxville, Tennessee."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger noted McKee Foods employs about 3,000 people in the Chattanooga area and has a big payroll.

"That's nothing to sneeze at," he said. "It's a remarkable situation that signifies entrepreneurship."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.