Who Was Little Debbie?
In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the most iconic female figures on our supermarket shelves—both real and fictional—who have shaped the way we cook and eat over the last century.
Any fan of the individually packaged Oatmeal Creme Pies, Swiss Rolls, and creme-filled Chocolate Cupcakes that have come to represent the taste of childhood is familiar with the smiling face of a curly haired, hat-wearing girl named Debbie.
And while a sweet-as-pie face like Little Debbie’s could have easily been dreamt up in a marketing meeting, Debbie was in fact a real person—and went on to be both the face and leader of one of the most successful and well-known baked goods brands in existence.
Debbie McKee was just 4 years old when her grandparents, Ruth and O.D. McKee decided to expand their small bakery operation to a national scale. The McKees first got into the business in 1934, when they bought a struggling bakery and revamped its business model, selling small cakes for lower prices than their competitors.
The couple had such success on the local level that in 1960 they decided to mass market their individually wrapped cakes on grocery shelves across America. All that was missing was a catchy name and appealing face.
The inspiration struck to name the individual treats after their granddaughter, branding them Little Debbies. To complete the packaging, an artist named Pearl Mann used a photo of Debbie to create the iconic logo that is still used today on countless sweet products.
Within just 10 months of the first release of Oatmeal Creme Pies, the company sold 14 million cakes, making “Little Debbie” an instant household name. Today, there are more than 75 varieties of snacks that bear Debbie’s likeness, sold in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
Though Little Debbie could have been a key part of the company in name only, the real life Debbie—whose full name is Debra McKee-Fowler—grew up and became an important figure in the massive treat company. Not-so-little Debbie currently serves as Executive Vice President and board member of the McKee Foods Corporation, which is responsible for one-third of all snack cake sales and made over $800 million in sales in 2016—a.k.a. a whole lot of Debbies.
FEATURED RECIPE: Little Debbie Powdered Donut Monkey Bread
Recently, Debbie was honored as the 2015 Tennessee Woman of Distinction for her service to the community. According to the organizers, Debbie was not honored for “the fact that her face has been on one of the country’s favorite snacks since the 1960s; it’s the fact that she has not used this platform to promote herself or her family to any position of prominence or power, but has quietly worked to enrich her community.”
From one of the most recognized dimpled faces in America to a do-gooder girl boss still leading the monumentally successful company her grandparents founded decades ago, Debra McKee continues to be one of the most important and iconic figures in the business of baked goods.