She grew up on Tastykakes, now she’s creating them | We the People
"People in Philadelphia tend to give me ideas," she said.
Meet Shelley McDonnough, product development coordinator with Tastykake's research and development unit.
• We knew it: "People are eating cake here every day."
When people from Philly meet Shelley McDonnough and find out she works for Tastykake, they feel compelled to share their sweetest desires with her.
"They react by just blurting out what their favorite Tastykake is and then almost expecting I would just have it," she said. "It's like I need to walk around with a backpack full of Tastykakes."
For McDonnough — who remembers going to the Wawa near her home in Yeadon as a child to get her own favorite, cherry pie Tastykakes — working for such an iconic Philly brand is a sweet gig.
"A lot of folks grew up on Tastykakes. Moms would buy cakes and put them in their lunchboxes for their kids. It's something that's passed on generation after generation," she said. "It actually is very fulfilling to know that I come to a place that treats me like family where I can have something that I grew up with — like the cherry pie — every day if I want to."
Founded in 1914 in Philadelphia, Tasty Baking Co. was sold to Flowers Foods Inc. of Thomasville, Ga., in 2011 to avoid bankruptcy. Today, Tasty Baking employs 533 people — including McDonnough — at its Navy Yard bakery.
A graduate of Penn Wood High School, McDonnough attended West Chester University, where she majored in biology and microbiology. She intended to pursue pharmaceutical science but when she saw a classified ad in the Inquirer for a senior lab technician at Tastykake, she applied and never looked back. That was 24 years ago.
McDonnough spent eight years in quality assurance and then was asked if she'd like to work in Tastykake's research and development unit. Her supervisors thought she'd like the variety and being required to sample new products.
"I love dessert, so I accepted and joined the department," she said.
McDonnough's job in R&D is to formulate and develop new Tastykake products, as well as new flavors for existing products. Lemon cupcakes? Those were hers. Pumpkin spice cupcakes, sweet potato pie, caramel apple pie, chocolate Kreamie Juniors — she had a hand in all of those creations, too.
Ideas for a new product or flavor can come from anywhere in the Tastykake team. The ideas get vetted in-house and with consumers before the marketing department gives the R&D team an idea of how they imagine the product, McDonnough said.
The R&D team then asks a lot of questions about the product — How big should it be? What should it taste like? How should it feel? — before they go about making and tasting concept samples.
For every thousand samples made, two may become products, McDonnough said.
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"It might take us a lot of iterations to hit that mark," she said. "If you just say 'lemon,' there are various nuances about lemon. Do you want it tart? Do you want it sour? Do you want it sweet?"
The process has given McDonnough an appreciation for other new products she sees on menus and shelves, because she knows how much works goes into them. At Tastykake, it can take six months to two years for a product to go from R&D to store shelves, she said.
But not every product hits the mark. Once, McDonnough was asked to help create a watermelon pie, which made it on store shelves. But consumers didn't love it, and the product was discontinued.
"We have to listen to our customers," she said.
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"People in Philadelphia tend to give me ideas. They're like, 'I think you should do a mocha chocolate chip Kandy Kake' … or they'll say, 'Oh, my favorite product is this and you should make this all the time,' " she said.
Given that her job description requires McDonnough to have her cake and eat it too, she makes it a point to hit the gym often and lace up her sneakers for long runs. Once a week, she even teaches a body sculpting class.
"I eat a lot of cakes and icings, so work-life balance is important," she said.