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Pop-Tarts – The Origins of America’s Favorite Toaster Pastry

Click on image to see edited/printed version.
Click on image to see edited/printed version.

Though born out of competition, Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts quickly stole the stage as the leading toaster pastry in the United States. However, the process of bringing the product to market was full of logistical challenges. From unfrosted to frosted and beyond, this Michigan-made, on-the-go breakfast pastry has secured its place on tables and in hearts across America.

Timing is everything, especially when competition is involved. For more than a century, Kellogg’s has dominated the prepackaged breakfast market from its headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan—the “Cereal Capital of the World.”

“The turn of the [twentieth] century saw a ‘Cereal Boom’ in Battle Creek,” according to the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. “At one time, there were more than 100 companies registered in the city.” Yet, only two of those companies remain: Post Consumer Brands, established in 1895 by C.W. Post as the Postum Cereal Co. and Kellogg’s, born out of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and founded by W.K. Kellogg as the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company on February 19, 1906. Over the years, they have battled for the title of champion of the breakfast foods industry, moving beyond cereal in the 1960s to cater to active families needing portable breakfast-on-the-go options.

Post was first to the table, utilizing a dehydration process that had been perfected for its pet-food division for Gaines Burgers in the early 1960s. With the proliferation of toasters in American homes, Post executives were anxious to develop a shelf-stable, hand-held fruit filled pastry that could be warmed up in a matter of minutes and eaten on the run. An article in the Sunday, October 13, 1963, issue of the Battle Creek Enquirer first broke the news of this innovative breakfast snack. “Country Squares are served by toasting and come in a variety of fruit flavors – strawberry, blueberry, grape, and orange-pineapple. They are packaged six to a carton, all of one flavor. Country Squares are produced at the Post Division Igleheart operations plant in Evansville, Ind.”

Four months later, the Enquirer published a full-page cover story about Battle Creek’s cereal industry—which at the time also included Ralston Purina—with a further description of Country Squares as “featuring a delicious fruit filling inside a tender crust designed to be toasted like bread in the toaster.”

There was a big problem though. While Post had developed its Country Squares recipe, it had not yet ironed out mass production, packaging, distribution and pricing. Recognizing the brilliance of this pastry idea, an astute William “Bill” LaMothe, Kellogg’s vice president, immediately went to work. Enlisting the help of “Doc” Joe Thompson and the Kellogg’s kitchen team, they quickly created their own product. However, Kellogg’s wasn’t a bakery so they needed to find a company that could help turn their concept into a reality.

A Baking Partner Arises

One of the noted bakeries of the era was Keebler, founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1853 by German-born Godfrey Keebler. For decades, he contracted with regional bakeries around the country, ultimately merging all operations between 1927 and 1928 under the brand name United Biscuit Company of America. Among those was the Hekman Biscuit Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Edsko Hekman emigrated from the Netherlands to Michigan in the early 1890s and was first noted in the Grand Rapids city directory, as a baker and grocer, in 1894. For the first few years, he, and his wife, Hendrikje, baked cookies in their rented home on Vries Street, S.W. Their children were said to load up the family baby buggy and deliver the Dutch cookies door-to-door before they finally upgraded to a horse-drawn carriage. Ten years later, he was affiliated with Valley City Biscuit Company which ultimately became Hekman Biscuit Company operating at 1363-1365 Grandville Avenue Southwest. The building is still standing, and the street is now also known called Cesar E. Chavez Avenue Southwest.

Bill Post—no relation to the Post brand family—was born and raised on the southwest side of Grand Rapids, one of seven children of Dutch immigrants. He was 16 when he started working washing delivery trucks for the Hekman bakery in 1943. He later attended Calvin College, for two years, but found he preferred bakery life to the classroom. He returned to Hekman and by age 21 he was the personnel manager, while assisting with sales and production as needed. Basically, he did whatever job needed to be done, learning most of the roles within the company.

A July 16, 1948, article in the Lansing State Journal revealed details of big things to come for the west Michigan bakery. “Production will be tripled when Hekman Biscuit company moves into its new $2,500,000 plant now near completion, President John Hekman said Thursday. With the number of employees stepped up from 275 to 450, the firm will manufacture products for other divisions of United Biscuit company in addition to its own complete line, Hekman said. The 55-year-old company was founded here in 1893 by the late Edsko Hekman Sr., who sold his baked goods from door to door.”

The new Hekman plant was regarded as one of the largest and most advanced bakeries in the United States at the time. Operating such a large facility took some creativity. A promotional brochure published by Hekman noted, “The plant superintendent uses a bicycle between the mixers and the front office and 35 telephones connect the departments.” The Art Deco-style building—still standing at 310 28th Street, S.E. (at one time referred to as The Belt Line)—was adjacent to the train lines allowing for easy distribution throughout Michigan and beyond.

In April 1964, the company had modified its name to Hekman Supreme Bakery, still operating as a division of the United Biscuit Company of America. By this time, Bill Post had been on the job 20 years and was serving as plant manager when he answered a phone call from Bill LaMothe asking to come check out Hekman’s bakery equipment. When the Kellogg entourage arrived in Grand Rapids, Bill gave them a tour of the facility which was set up to produce an array of crackers and cookies. LaMothe then shared details about his new toaster pastry idea and invited Bill to travel to Battle Creek to see the samples that the Kellogg team had created.

An icon is born

Things moved quickly from there. Post assured LaMothe that Hekman could handle the project—a decision Post later admitted upset his bosses at the time—and it was full steam ahead to get a product to market. There was no contract at the onset, just a handshake and a verbal agreement.

A production plan was in place within two weeks and within four weeks, handmade samples of what were first called “Fruit Scones” were rolling off the bakery line.13 Among the early challenges Bill had to address was how to keep the fruit-filled dough from exploding during the warming process. Taking a page from the pie crust playbook, he found that poking holes in the top of the pastry provided a way for the steam to escape.

The three original fruit flavors—strawberry, blueberry and apple currant—were made with SMUCKER’S® jelly or preserves while the cinnamon sugar was chosen as a non-fruit flavor based on a recipe from one of the worker’s grandmothers. All were frosting-free, rectangular with rounded corners and a diagonal score making it easy to cut in half.

Just four months after that first conversation, Kellogg’s toaster pastries—which had been taste tested by Post’s kids, Dan and Rachel—were ready to be test-marketed. But first, they needed a snazzy new name. Drawing inspiration from Andy Warhol’s colorfully creative 1960s “Pop Art” movement, LaMothe settled on Pop-Tarts.  A trademark application was filed on July 20, 1964, for the “fruit preserve filled pastry bakery product” which was registered with patent number 791,514 on June 22, 1965.

Packaged six pastries to a box—with two pastries in each of the foil-wrapped packs—Pop-Tarts first hit stores shelves in Cleveland, Ohio on September 14, 1964. No one could have anticipated the consumer reaction to this innovative new food. People were eating it up—literally. The initial production run of 45,000 cases of each flavor were gone within a matter of months, forcing Kellogg’s to take out a full-page color ad in the Dayton Daily News on December 30, 1964, which read “Oops! We Goofed. We ran out of POP-TARTS.

Turns out the ad actually increased demand for the flaky fruit pastry. To keep up, Hekman had to run three shifts and eventually add a second production line at the Grand Rapids factory. Bill said he was doing whatever it took to keep the Pop-Tarts production moving along, which included requesting equipment from other United Biscuit facilities without permission or the necessary paperwork. His name, reputation and job were on the line, but he was focused on the task at hand. To get more Pop-Tarts to the people, or more importantly, to the kids.

Though sales did not begin until well into the year, the launch of Pop-Tarts helped Kellogg’s hit a new record sales and earnings of $349 million for 1964, according to a front-page article in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Friday, February 26, 1965. The report included the first public announcement for the newly released Pop-Tarts.

Americans from coast to coast were soon introduced to Pop-Tarts as distribution expanded nationally. Lois Fegan, a columnist and travel editor for The Jersey Journal touted Pop-Tarts in the March 17, 1965, edition. “Flavor-filled pastry bars are the latest breakfast goodies – ready-to-heat and brimming with apple-current jelly; blueberry and strawberry preserves, or brown sugar and cinnamon. Made by Kellogg’s they can be served as a warm breakfast bread, or as an in-between meal snack or as a dessert with ice cream or whipped cream.”

One of the first Pop-Tarts ads to appear in Michigan was in the May 26, 1965, issue of The Holland Evening Sentinel, where an 11-ounce package of Pop-Tarts was available for 43 cents. Over the next couple of years, countless ads—including coupons—appeared in papers around the country.

Fewer than two years after Pop-Tarts were introduced, changes were again made at the corporate level. The May 19, 1966, issue of the Chicago Tribune reported “Shareholders of United Biscuit Company of American voted to change the name of the corporation to Keebler company. Keebler is one of the four regional brand names under which the company markets its products.” With that announcement, Hekman became Keebler and the signage at the 28th Street factory was changed to reflect the newest chapter of the bakery’s history.

Frosted Pop-Tarts were introduced in 1967, despite company naysayers who were convinced the icing would melt in the toaster. Ever a problem-solver, Bill was able to perfect the process and today most flavors are frosted. Outside of that change, and the development of countless new flavors, there have been very few recipe tweaks over the last sixty years.26 There has, however, been a conscious effort since 2016 on the part of the innovation team to support local agriculture with the use of commodities like flour, sugar and fruit filling, including what Kellogg’s calls “perfectly imperfect” apples, strawberries and other fruits that are suitable for fresh market consumption.

Into the 21st century

As of 2021, there more than 20 standard Pop-Tart flavors as well as many limited editions made in collaboration with other food brands such as Jolly Rancher, Dunkin Donuts, A&W Root Beer and even popular Kellogg’s brands like Froot Loops and Eggo waffles. Dozens of branded flavors have been released over the years to promote movies, television shows and other modern culture references. For years, Frosted Strawberry has been the #1 selling flavor, followed by Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon. There are even Pop Tarts Bites and Pop Tarts Crunch Cereal, both available in just two flavors—strawberry and brown sugar cinnamon.

Pop-Tarts are sold and consumed annually throughout the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, generating close to $1 billion of annual net sales—about 80 percent of the market share—and keeping the Kellogg’s brand at the top of the toaster pastry food chain.

Post Consumer Brands ultimately released their Country Squares toaster pastry, but it never reached the popular fame that Pop-Tarts did. In the summer of 1965, the name was changed to Toast ’em Fruit Filled Pop-Ups, which was sold to Schulze & Burch Biscuit Company in 1971.30 Other similar products also have market space including Pillsbury’s frozen Toaster Strudels, introduced in 1985; Nabisco Toastettes, created in 1967 and discontinued in 2002; and Toastables, produced by The Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo.

In 2001, Kellogg’s bought out Keebler for approximately $3.9 billion. Kellogg’s then sold its cookie line and the rights of the Keebler name to Ferrero SpA in 2019 for $1.3 billion, retaining the rest of its North American snacking business—including Pop Tarts. In October 2023, Kellogg’s split its operations and rebranded as WK Kellogg Co. and Kellanova, handling the North American cereal brand and global snacking lines, respectively.

As for the Pop-Tart patriarch, Bill Post spent over 40 years working for Hekman/Keebler, retiring in 1985 as the Senior Vice President. He was then hired as a new product consultant for Kellogg’s, representing the brand worldwide for 19 years, retiring (again) in 2003.

Post readily acknowledged his role in bringing the Pop-Tart brand to fruition, and in recent years has become a cultural star himself. He has been interviewed, quoted, and mentioned by countless media outlets—including The History Channel’s The Food That Built America (Season 4, Episode 1 – February 19, 2023). Yet, he recognizes he was part of a team, and in talking with him you can tell he is honored, yet humbled, to have been a part of breakfast history. Post passed away in February 2024.

Post and LaMothe kept in touch until LaMothe’s death in September 2022. After Lamoth’s passing, his children approached Post and thanked him for helping bring Pop-Tarts to life—something he says meant a lot.


Dianna Stampfler is an author, armchair historian, and president of Promote Michigan. She also has a borderline addiction to Kellogg’s Strawberry Pop-Tarts, always untoasted and right out of the package.


Reprinted from the June/July 2024 issue of Michigan History Magazine.