They may have come for the free Twinkies, but the 300 or so visitors crammed under a tent in the Flinthills Mall parking lot stayed for something else.
For some, it was the chance to showcase their songwriting talent in the Twinkie song contest. For others, it was the challenge of eating 10 Twinkies in under two minutes.
For Mary Ann Blaufuss, it was the chance to share her hope that the re-opening of Emporia’s Hostess factory might give the town’s economy a much-needed boost.
Blaufuss took the stage beneath a wide white tent set up at the parking lot’s edge. A grass median separated Emporia’s first Twinkie Festival from the honking cars on I-35. Blaufuss sang a nine-stanza ode to the snack cake, to the tune of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
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“Well, we’ll all go out to buy some when they come,” Blaufuss sang.
The crowd chanted back, “Twin-kees!”
Then, “They will stimulate our economy when they come.”
“Cha-ching!” the crowd replied.
Afterward, Blaufuss said she wanted her song to reflect the importance of Hostess’ relationship with Emporia, where residents she said suffered when the factory shut its doors last year.
Beginning Monday, Twinkies once again graced grocery store shelves and gas station checkouts. Hostess filed for bankruptcy eight months ago and closed its factories in Emporia and elsewhere. Private equity firms bought the company for $410million in March.
Shelly Kelley, the center manager at KansasWorks – which helps match job seekers with employers – said 540 employees lost their jobs locally when Hostess declared bankruptcy and closed down the factory.
“It was a really frightening time,” Kelley said. “For many families, both mom and dad were longtime employees, so they went from a dual income to zero income.”
KansasWorks helped about 80 of the former employees go back to school or get on-the-job training. While some of the factory’s former engineering and management staff were rehired, most of the jobs on the factory floor will be filled by temporary workers from a human resources company called the Arnold Group, Kelley said.
Kent Heermaan, president of the Regional Development Association of East Central Kansas, said the Emporia factory now employs 300 people and will be Hostess’ flagship production plant.
“There’s a lot of excitement here, not just because of the job opportunities, but because families will be able to stay here; they won’t have to be uprooted,” Kelley said.