Inside Chattanooga (Tenn.) Bakery, a legendary snack comes to life as thin circles of dough enter an oversized oven and leave three and a half minutes later as cookies. A machine squirts each one with a dollop of gooey marshmallow, then a robotic arm caps it with a second cookie.
“Now here’s the Willie Wonka part,” says Tory Johnston, vice president of marketing for Chattanooga Bakery, pointing to a chocolate waterfall that coats the scrumptious concoction.
Moments later, after the chocolate hardens in a cooling tunnel, Johnston snatches a slightly lopsided MoonPie off the assembly line. “Something we don’t obsess too much about is the fact that it’s imperfect,” he says. “We don’t freak out if it’s not fully straight. Each one has its own little personality, all with the same great legendary taste.”
The MoonPie’s origin is legendary, too. The tale goes like this: In 1917, a Chattanooga Bakery salesman asked some coal miners to describe their ideal snack. Something filling, they answered, and cheap. Then a miner looked up at the sky, framed the moon with his hands, and exclaimed, “About that big!” Back at the bakery, the salesman shared what he’d heard and soon workers were cloaking marshmallow-filled graham cookies in butter-based chocolate. By the late 1950s demand was so great that Chattanooga Bakery stopped manufacturing its Butterette Dainties, Jersey Cream Lunch Biscuits and 200 other products to focus on MoonPies. When paired with an RC Cola, the two-fisted, 5-cent cookie constituted “the working man’s lunch for a dime.”
Today, a MoonPie is smaller, costs 50 to 79 cents, and is assembled via machine in the 250,000-square-foot plant that employs 145 workers. On average, 1 million MoonPies in three sizes and six flavors—vanilla, banana, lemon, orange, strawberry and the ever-popular chocolate—roll off the assembly lines each day. The nostalgic cookies are distributed in 44 states, and, from time to time, sold in overseas markets such as Japan, where the treats were renamed Massi Pies because the word moon is considered sacred in that country. Other than that, says Vice President John C. Campbell II, 40, not much about the sweet snack has changed.
“We’re just fortunate to have a company that’s held on this long,” says Campbell, who as a teenager spent his summers baking and packaging MoonPies. His grandfather Sam Jr. bought the business in 1930; father Sam III is now chairman and brother Sam IV is president. “I don’t think it’s because we’ve done anything particularly right. We just keep on doing the same thing.” Customers seem to be happy, says Johnston, noting the thousands of fan letters and e-mails the company has received. “Everybody’s got a MoonPie story,” Johnston says. “It’s just incredible—everything from (MoonPie) wedding cakes to people having MoonPies in Desert Storm and Vietnam. There are kooky stories about bribing police officers out of a ticket with a MoonPie, to marriage proposals with MoonPies, to being buried with a MoonPie. The connection to this little brand just blows us away.”
John Taylor, who goes by the name “MoonPie John,” rekindled his own connection to the cookie a few years ago when, to his delight, he discovered a Mini MoonPie in a goodie bag at a senior citizens get-together. “That’s when I fell in love with ’em again,” says Taylor, 89, of New Market, Ala. (pop. 1,864).
He loved them so much, in fact, that he started taking them to friends in nursing homes and “it tickled them to death.” One man had been bedridden for several years and was “semiconscious,” Taylor says. “But when I walked in and told him who I was and held up that MoonPie, he came out of it and yelled, ‘MoonPie!’ He grabbed it and his wife said he wouldn’t turn it loose. And the next morning he wanted his MoonPie.”
“I carried him MoonPies after that,” Taylor adds “and still do.”