Published November 16. 2012 6:00PM Updated November 16. 2012 8:38PM
Montville — The rumble of delivery trucks at the Hostess Brands Inc. distribution site on Route 32 in Uncasville fell silent Friday afternoon as the 38 employees there and at a thrift store in Norwich received notice that the company would be winding down operations nationwide.
The shuttering of Hostess facilities will lead to about 18,500 lost jobs across the country, nearly 200 of them in Connecticut. Hostess said thrift stores locally likely would be open for a few more days as the company sells off the last of the baked goods on hand.
Hostess — maker of Twinkies, Wonder Bread and Drake's cakes, among other products — said that it had been trying to work out a way to save the company but a crippling strike by members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union forced them to abandon plans to reorganize in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
"We deeply regret the necessity of today's decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike," said Gregory F. Rayburn, chief executive officer of the company, in a statement. "Hostess Brands will ... focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders."
Local delivery-route sales representatives for the company, who generally hit the road before dawn, said they didn't hear about Hostess's decision to end the firm's more than 80-year run until they tuned into radio reports between deliveries.
For 50-year-old Bryan Handy, known as "the Mayor of Westerly" to customers along his regular Mystic-to-Westerly route delivering Hostess products, the failure of one of America's iconic brands was simply a matter of investors trying to squeeze more money out of a business than it was able to deliver.
"It's just tough when you let a hedge fund run a company they did not know how to run," said Handy. A member of Teamsters Local 493 who has two adult children living at home in Uncasville, he said as he removed trash from trucks lining the parking lot.
Handy's employment with Hostess ended 25 years to the day after he started in the baked-goods delivery business.
"I loved it," he said. "I enjoyed meeting the customers."
For 36-year-old Rob Morano of Griswold, who has two young children and spent six years with Hostess, losing his job just before the holidays was particularly regrettable.
"It's just awful that my job was in the hands of another union," Morano said. "I had nothing to do with it."
The Teamsters union had approved a proposed contract with Hostess that would have lowered employees' pay and increased their contributions to health-care benefits. Hostess said the agreement also would have given employees a 25 percent stake in the company, but the bakers union refused to come to the bargaining table and instead launched a strike that closed three major facilities.
Handy said the new contract would have lowered his base pay from $41,000 a year to $33,000, but at least it would have protected his job. A few years ago, Handy said he made in the mid-$50,000 range, but concessions in 2005 and 2008 — during Hostess' two previous bankruptcies — has steadily whittled into his income.
Bruce Duchesneau of Montville, district manager at the Uncasville facility who has been with Hostess 26 years, said that in addition to affecting sales representatives and thrift-store personnel, the closure locally will mean lost jobs for people in the shipping and warehouse departments, as well as mechanics who keep machinery up and running.
Duchesneau said his employees worked hard, some of them for nearly 30 years, and the company tried its best to be open with them about the possibility that business problems would lead to a closure.
"To put blame (on anyone) at this point does not change what happened," he said.
Hostess said the wind down of operations will mean the closure of 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers and 570 outlet stores throughout the country. The company has been fighting to stay competitive in a market that has been slowly moving away from sugary snack foods and in a field that largely lacks union employees.
But a representative of the Texas-based company, which owns brands that date as far back as 1888, told The Associated Press that it expects to be able to spin off several of its 30 product lines, which include Dolly Madison, Nature's Pride, Ho Hos, Suzy Q's, Donettes and Ding Dongs. Hostess products likely will remain on store shelves for another week or so, the company said.
Meanwhile, a liquidation hearing is expected Monday before a bankruptcy judge in Texas.
Handy, the Hostess route salesman who has heard customers chirp "the bread man's here" for 25 years, said he would be filing for unemployment Friday and looking for a new job right away.
"You can't let it get you down," he said.