As the creators and producers of Little Debbie Snack Cakes, O. D. and Ruth McKee transformed a small bakery into a terrific success that their two sons have turned into a business worth $770 million in annual sales. Before the introduction of the individually wrapped snack cakes in 1960, the McKees experienced four distinct periods in their business. As a young couple in the depressed 1930s, they bought a small bakery in Chattanooga and operated it with Ruth McKee’s father. When the bakery prospered, the McKees sold their interest and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they opened another bakery. In the early 1950s the couple sold the enterprise, intending to retire. The McKees returned to Chattanooga and again helped Mrs. McKee’s family with the old bakery. They purchased the bakery for themselves, naming it the McKee Baking Company. The business relocated to Collegedale in 1957, where the company headquarters has remained for forty years.
The innovative idea of boxing twelve separately packaged snack cakes and marketing the cartons as family packs at the low price of forty-nine cents proved profitable, and the addition of the name “Little Debbie” and the image drawn from a picture of the McKee’s granddaughter provided an identity both wholesome and easy to remember.
Today the cost of the family pack runs from two to four times its 1960 price, depending upon the variety purchased. The line has expanded to sixty-six varieties of snack cakes and leads all competition in unit sales. The two plants in Collegedale, one in Virginia, and one in Arkansas employ a total of five thousand people and operate around the clock six days a week. Ellsworth McKee became company president in 1971 and passed the title to his brother Jack in 1996. McKee Baking Company changed its name to McKee Foods Corporation in 1991 and introduced a line of Sunbelt snacks and granola cereal bars that runs slightly more in cost than the Little Debbie snack cakes. The company has recently diversified into merchandising with the introduction of a line of Funware (tee shirts, caps, and mugs) and a Little Debbie-style Barbie doll.
Their association with the Seventh-day Adventists of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, as well as the McKee’s commitment to involvement in the community, have led the company’s management to support education of its employees for job advancement. The McKee Education Center for Children and Adults provides resource information for parents, child-rearing tips, and activities for the family. The legacy of O. D. and Ruth McKee continues through the philosophy the corporation espouses.