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Pop down the baked goods aisle at any grocery store and you’ll see her grinning face on packages of Swiss Cake Rolls, Cosmic Brownies, and Zebra Cakes. We’re talking about Little Debbie of course, the snack brand that is part of McKee Foods Corporation. However, few may realize that this famous face was actually based on a real-life little girl. Grab an oatmeal cream pie and settle in as we share her story!
During the Great Depression, an entrepreneur named O.D. McKee began selling snack cakes for five cents apiece from the backseat of his Whippet car. The cakes allowed him to support his wife Ruth and their three children, but also tapped into his interest in baking. O.D. and Ruth would later buy a small bakery to begin baking small cakes and selling sweets, founding the McKee Foods Corporation in 1934.
Early years in business were filled with struggles for the pair, so much so that they even put up a sheet near the back of the bakery where the family’s living quarters were located. However, hard work and the dedication to their brand’s vision allowed them to find success as the years went on. In 1960, the McKees came up with a new family pack of snack cakes and tried to think of a catchy name for them. Nothing felt right until they came across a photo of their four-year-old granddaughter Debbie wearing a cowgirl hat — and just like that, “Little Debbie” was born.
Pearl Mann, an Atlanta-based artist designed the original artwork for the four-color carton based off of the black and white photo. Mann was instructed to make Debbie appear a bit older, around 8 or 9, instead of using her actual age. A few subtle updates were given to the logo throughout the late 1980s and once more in 2013.
Little Debbie made her debut later that year and was an instant hit with consumers as a snack staple in America’s households. The brand turned 50 in 2010 and in 2015, Debbie McKee-Fowler was honored in the 30th Annual Chattanooga Women of Distinction Awards luncheon as their 2015 Tennessee Woman of Distinction. Today, she serves as the Executive Vice President at McKee Foods — bringing her journey with the brand full circle.