Meanwhile, imitators and substitutes take up shelf space that Hostess products used to occupy.
Fret not, Twinkie lovers. The snack cake could be back on store shelves by summer.
Two private equity firms agreed this week to pay $410 million for the iconic brand and its sugary brethren, including CupCakes and Ho Hos, along with five of Hostess Brands' U.S. bakeries. The deal is subject to approval by a bankruptcy court judge and could be topped by sweeter bids.
If all goes well, it could be completed by the end of April, officials said.
The news might not be as welcome to the independent bakers and snack cake rivals that experienced a pop in sales in the two months since Hostess shut down after a bitter contract dispute with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. Before it closed in November, Hostess accounted for 26 percent of the $2.7 billion in U.S. bakery snack sales, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group.
Retailers have filled former Hostess shelf space with rival goodies -- some name brand, some private label -- they say were in development or on the market long before the company closed its doors. Compared with the Twinkie's per-cake price of about 68 cents, they're 5 to 50 percent cheaper.
Walgreen Inc. spokesman Jim Graham said it was kismet that its Nice! Sponge Cake and Cupcakes hit shelves the same month Twinkies disappeared. Safeway Inc. introduced its Snack Artist brand Creme Cake three months before Twinkies' demise. Neither company would offer specific sales data.
Mike Gloekler of McKee Foods Corp., which makes Little Debbie snacks, said the Collegedale, Tenn.-based company has "clearly seen a spike" in sales of all products that resemble Hostess treats since Hostess Brands halted production.
Little Debbie introduced Cloud Cakes two years ago, re-creating the product with its own recipe after previously buying it from another baker. Gloekler said the company, which is the lead bidder to buy Hostess' Drake's cakes, is pleased with sales of all its competing products. The reincarnation of Twinkies under another owner won't change that.
"We have said from the beginning we maintain our own long-term strategy," he said.
Little Debbie's Cloud Cakes and Chocolate Cupcakes are taking up shelf space formally occupied by Hostess counterparts at a Jewel grocery store in Chicago. "We just added those a couple of weeks after Hostess," said store director Tom Cassady. "They're selling pretty well. There are only a few boxes on the shelf."
Some bakery owners also say it's business as usual for now, though they're enjoying a nice increase in sales as Twinkies are on hiatus. Angel Food Bakery in Chicago, which specializes in retro treats, had demand pick up for the Airstream, a homemade version of the Twinkie filled with marshmallow buttercream. While owner Stephanie Samuels thinks her treats are an improvement on the original, she acknowledges that for some customers, nothing can replace the Twinkie.
"Regardless of how good or tasty or healthy these things are, I think they're so ingrained in people's past that it's strange to have them not around," Samuels said.
Missing those Twinkies
Graduate student Courtney Thomas, 22, misses Hostess CupCakes, which she indulged in a few times a month.
These days, she's getting her cupcake fix with the 7-Eleven brand, 7-Select.
"These are good," she said, pointing to the snack cakes in a Chicago store. "I don't have a problem with them."
Analysts are divided on whether competitors' recent gains will continue if the Twinkie comes back.
"Given the sales success that Twinkie enjoyed and the hyped-up demand lately, it looks like a great opportunity for retailers to seize the market," said Todd Hale, senior vice president of consumer and shopper insights at Nielsen Co. "While there may be a lot of negative issues out there associated with packaged snacks, we as consumers still have a sweet tooth."
Despite the number of competitors, there will likely never be a store-brand challenger that can recapture or rival the popularity of the Twinkie, said Neil Stern, a retail consultant at McMillanDoolittle.
"It's a pretty unique product that's difficult to knock off," he said. "No one's ever made an Oreo [competitor] that tastes exactly like an Oreo."