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Hostess Brands’ abrupt decision to cease operations Friday came as a shock to many, prompting customers to stock up on Twinkies and other snack cakes that they’ve loved since childhood.

By late afternoon Friday, however, it was too late. Many local stores had sold out of the iconic sponge cake with creamy filling.

Budding entrepreneurs turned to eBay to auction boxes of the baked goods online. Ten-count boxes of Twinkies were priced in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars on the online site as news of Hostess’ demise spread.

“I can’t imagine Twinkies gone forever,” said Daniel Fusco of St. Louis. Fusco picked up a box of Hostess Zingers snack cakes for himself at the Schnucks grocery store on Clayton Road in Richmond Heights and a box of Hostess Cupcakes for a friend. All Twinkies sold out earlier in the day, a store employee told the Post-Dispatch.

“My friend in New York sent me a text to buy some (Hostess products) because the stores he went to were sold out,” Fusco said.

But don’t despair because the disappearance may not last forever. Hostess Brands says it will seek to sell its popular brands, including Wonder bread, Yodels and Ding Dongs. The 85-year-old company has about 30 brands, which could be sold through a bankruptcy court auction.

On Friday, struggling Hostess Brands asked a bankruptcy court to approve the Irving, Texas-based company’s request to permanently close the business and sell all its assets, with plans to wind down operations within a year. A hearing on its request is set for Monday.

The move to liquidate, which means laying off more than 18,000 employees nationwide, follows a bakers union strike that began last week.

Hostess said a strike by members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which represents more than 5,000 of its employees, crippled its ability to produce and deliver products.

Local groceries already had seen a shortage of some Hostess products this week during the labor turmoil, which led to the closure of the St. Louis plant on Monday. By Friday afternoon, many Hostess shelves showed dwindling supplies.

“After the final deliveries of Hostess breads and cakes are made today, there will be no more Hostess brand products available,” Lori Willis, spokeswoman for Maryland Heights-based Schnuck Markets Inc., wrote in an email. Schnuck Markets operates 100 groceries in several states under the names Schnucks, Logli and Hilander.

She said the grocer is working to increase the availability of similar products, including Schnucks private brands, to meet demand.

Kirkwood-based Shop ’n Save and Chesterfield-based Dierbergs Markets are both working with their bread suppliers to fill the shelf space occupied by Hostess Brands.

“Given the popularity of Hostess products, we are seeing an increase in customers buying them, and we expect this to continue as news about Hostess going out of business spreads,” said Shop ’n Save spokeswoman Karen May.

Hostess already had closed a plant in St. Louis that employed 365 people, in addition to plants in Cincinnati and Seattle. The company issued an ultimatum to bakers union members by midweek, saying the company would shut down if more employees didn’t report to work Thursday.

By Thursday night, not enough workers had returned to work to restore normal operations, the company said Friday.

Hostess reiterated that the company lacked the financial resources to weather the national strikes, and that selling its assets made the most sense.

“Employees are devastated,” said Bill Millecker, vice president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers And Grain Millers International Union Local 4, which represents 200 of the 365 employees who worked at the Hostess plant in north St. Louis. Many employees at the Hostess plant had worked there for decades.

Bakers union employees rejected a contract in September that cut benefits by up to 32 percent, and an immediate 8 percent wage reduction, the union said. A judge in Hostess’ bankruptcy case ruled the company could impose the concessions.

“Instead of accepting the offer Hostess was going to give them, they’re moving on with their lives,” Millecker said.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 6,700 Hostess employees, said it would continue to make deliveries of available inventory over the next few days. Teamsters union employees approved their contract with Hostess in September but will now soon find themselves out of work.

On the auction block

Analysts expect buyers to emerge to purchase the Hostess brands, which have loyal customers stretching back decades.

In court filings Friday, Hostess said that no single buyer emerged in recent months to buy the entire company, but “a number of potentially viable proposals to purchase limited pools of the debtors’ assets” came forward.

“The desired outcome of the wind down is the sale of groups of assets that can be operated on a going concern basis,” Hostess said in a court filing.

No companies were identified, but analysts said potential bidders for some brands include Mexican-based Grupo Bimbo, the world’s largest bread maker, and Flowers Foods, based in Thomasville, Ga., which owns the Sunbeam and Bunny brands.

Bloomberg News reported late Friday that C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., the owner of Pabst Brewing Co., is considering a bid for the brands.

“We believe there may be some specific Hostess assets that Flowers could buy to both expand its geographic reach and fill in its existing territory,” SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst William Chappell Jr. wrote in a note to investors.

Jon Falk, executive vice president of Olivette-based branding agency Falk Harrison, was among the St. Louisans who hit stores Friday to load up on Twinkies and other snack cakes for his firm’s employees. He found only two packages of Twinkies for sale at the Walgreens in Olivette Friday morning.

“It’s really sad to think about these iconic brands being not accessible to people,” Falk said.

Still, he’s convinced Hostess will ultimately be able to sell the brands. “The brands are where the real value is.”

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