On New Year’s Eve, 50,000 people will fill the streets of Mobile, Alabama. Moments before midnight, the crowds will start to chant: ‘MoonPie! MoonPie!’ and as the clock strikes 12, a huge 600-pound electric MoonPie will drop to welcome the New Year.
This will be the 10th year of the ‘MoonPie over Mobile’ celebration in a city that adores the traditional Southern snack. First made in 1917 by the family-run Chattanooga Bakery, MoonPies are made of two graham cracker cookies with marshmallow in the middle and covered with a layer of melted chocolate.
The treat takes on a fluffy, cake-like quality because the marshmallow softens the cookies, giving MoonPies a unique flavor and texture that has been loved for generations. The cookie sandwich has found a place of its own in the heart of Southern culture through songs such as country music singer Big Bill Lister’s song Gimme An RC Cola and a MoonPie and traditions that include Mobile’s New Year’s Eve tradition and the throwing of MoonPies from Mardi Gras floats.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the invention of the MoonPie, the traditional Southern snack invented by the family-run Chattanooga Bakery. Two women are pictured topping off MoonPies as they go along the conveyor belt in the factory in an undated photo
Though the Chattanooga Bakery hasn’t done much advertising, this ad shows Vice President and COO John Campbell’s mother and older brother, who is now the company’s President. John Campbell says: ‘That was one of the few ads that we ever photographed. So my mother and brother were the people in the picture, so, but that was just something that we used for trade purposes. It was never used on a commercial scale’
MoonPies are made of two graham cracker cookies with marshmallow in the middle, covered with a layer of melted chocolate. The cookie sandwich takes on a unique, fluffy quality because the marshmallow softens the cookies
MoonPies have been immortalized by traditions including the ‘MoonPie over Mobile’ New Year’s Eve tradition in Mobile, Alabama. For the past 10 years, the city has welcomed the New Year with a 600-pound electric MoonPie dropping over the city at midnight (pictured in the first moments of 2016)
Even 100 years after the MoonPie was invented, the Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is run by the same family – four generations later. John Campbell is the great, great grandson of the founder of the flour mill, Mountain City Milling Co., which opened the Chattanooga Bakery as a subsidiary company in 1902. His grandfather, Sam Campbell, Jr took over the business in 1930 and today John is the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President while his older brother Sam is the President. John’s niece also works there, making it a fifth-generation family company.
‘It seems like every time people mention the name [MoonPie], whether they know me or not, it seems like they always have a smile and they have a great memory about something that they did with their grandparent or someone who introduced them to MoonPies. It’s almost a generational thing,’ John tells DailyMail.com.
The Chattanooga Bakery still makes every single MoonPie and the factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is capable of making 1million MoonPies a day
‘So when we talk about our history and our heritage, we talk about the memories. So, if we said we made a million MoonPies a day, it’s really like we made a million memories a day because it’s so much fun for people to talk about the things that they remember.’
According to legend, as told by Tory Johnston, the bakery’s VP of Sales and Marketing, a Kentucky coal miner inspired the idea for the MoonPie back in 1917. Back then, the Chattanooga Bakery made more than 100 different bakery products – today they focus only on MoonPies – and a traveling salesman had gone up to the Appalachian area of Kentucky to check in with vendors.
After being told by a general store manager that the Chattanooga Bakery’s cookies and brownies weren’t selling well and that they should come up with something better, the salesman left and found coal miners who had just finished their shifts for the night. He asked for their advice and they told him they wanted something big and filling that would fit into their lunch pails.
‘As he was talking about this late in the afternoon or evening, the moon was coming up and the [miner] framed his hands and said, make it about that big – and he framed the moon,’ Johnston says.
‘So, the guy came back to the bakery and he saw some of our employees dipping round graham cracker cookies into marshmallow and putting them on the windowsill and letting them harden and then they would dip them in chocolate. And he says, wait a minute, here’s a product idea. Let’s make that cookie big. So he told the story and somebody came up with this whole idea of Moon-Pie and literally, the rest is history.’
According to legend, the invention of the MoonPie was inspired by a Kentucky coal miner who told a traveling salesman for the Chattanooga Bakery that he wanted a snack as big as the moon, but that would still fit in his lunch pail. Chattanooga Bakery factory workers are pictured in an undated photo
When the traveling salesman returned from Kentucky, he saw that some of the bakers were dipping graham cracker cookies into marshmallow, letting them cool and then dipping them in chocolate, which made him think of what the coal miner had told him. Women are pictured working at the MoonPie conveyor belt in an undated photo
Chattanooga Bakery Vice President and COO, John Campbell is the great, great grandson of the founder of the flour mill that became the Chattanooga Bakery. He says MoonPies are all about memories. ‘If we said we made a million MoonPies a day, it’s really like we made a million memories a day because it’s so much fun for people to talk about the things that they remember.’ Chattanooga Bakery factory workers are pictured in an undated photo
The Chattanooga Bakery opened in 1902 as a subsidiary company of the Mountain City Milling Co., a flour mill. Pictured is the original location of the bakery and flour mill before the factory moved to a different location in Chattanooga. The bakery used to make more than 100 bakery items, but today only makes the MoonPie
At the low price of five cents a cookie, a MoonPie paired with an RC Cola – which was also known for having more volume than other soft drinks and also costing only five cents – became known as the ‘working man’s lunch for a dime’ in the 50s and 60s, according to Johnston.
‘They were just cheap and filling and Southern and they just kind of became known as this Southern working-man’s snack and country music picked up on it over time and it just kind of became part of the Southern cultural fabric.’
Besides being featured in country music songs or being the focus of Mobile, Alabama’s New Year’s Eve celebration – which also includes an eight-inch-thick, four-foot tall edible MoonPie that can feed 300 people – the snack, along with RC Cola, is commemorated in its own summer festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
MoonPies are even thrown from floats during Mardi Gras – a tradition that has gone on for at least the past 25 years.
Cracker Jacks – another traditional Southern snack – used to be thrown from floats, according to Johnston, but because they were in cardboard boxes they were more painful to be hit with. The fluffier MoonPies, ‘this Southern, soft, whimsical snack’ became the replacement.
A MoonPie paired with an RC Cola became known as the ‘working man’s lunch for a dime’ in the 50s and 60s, because both snacks only cost five cents a piece. Over time, they both increased to 10 cents a piece and today MoonPies cost only 50 cents, maintaining its legendary reputation for being inexpensive. Pictured is an undated ad pairing double-decker MoonPies with RC Cola. The double-decker size was introduced in 1972
John Campbell says: ‘People ask me all the time if I still eat them and I guess, maybe it’s a little crazy, but I do. I still have a box sitting in my office. I go through phases where certain flavors appeal more… Lately I’ve been on a banana kick. I’m not sure why.’ The packaging area of the MoonPie factory is pictured around 1950
Tory Johnston, the VP of Sales and Marketing says: ‘[Moonpies] were just cheap and filling and Southern and they just kind of became known as this Southern working-man’s snack and country music picked up on it over time and it just kind of became part of the Southern cultural fabric’
Today there are five main flavors of MoonPies: chocolate, vanilla, banana, salted caramel and strawberry, and three sizes: mini, single-decker and double-decker. The Chattanooga Bakery, which still produces every single MoonPie from its home-base, can produce 1million MoonPies per day.
Even after growing up in the MoonPie business, John Campbell says he still eats MoonPies all the time. He always goes for the single-decker size, but his preferred flavor changes on a regular basis.
‘People ask me all the time if I still eat them and I guess, maybe it’s a little crazy, but I do. I still have a box sitting in my office,’ he says. ‘I go through phases where certain flavors appeal more… Lately I’ve been on a banana kick. I’m not sure why.’
MoonPies also have ‘seasonal’ flavors that include lemon, coconut and orange (which Johnston says tastes like an orange creamsicle). The bakery tries not to make too many different flavors because it can take a toll on the small company because of the cost required in making the same amount of MoonPies, but in different flavors.
‘We are forever resource constrained,’ Johnston says. ‘We are definitely a smaller niche brand in a gigantic category called cookies and so it’s all the more incumbent upon us to be smart. We don’t have a lot of room for failure, so we have to be smart with the things that we do.
‘We’ll never out-spend Oreo. We’ll never outspend Little Debbie. We’ve just got a cool, unique product and we’ve just got to keep pedaling hard… But at the end of the day, retro and authentic is in.
Today there are five main flavors of MoonPies: chocolate, vanilla, banana, salted caramel and strawberry, and three sizes: mini, single-decker and double-decker. There are also ‘seasonal’ flavors that include lemon, coconut and orange. A vanilla single-decker MoonPie and a chocolate single-decker MoonPie are pictured
Besides being featured in country music songs or being the focus of Mobile, Alabama’s New Year’s Eve celebration – which also includes an eight-inch-thick, four-foot tall edible MoonPie that can feed 300 people (pictured at the 2015 celebration) – MoonPies and RC Cola have its own summer festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee
MoonPies are even thrown from floats during Mardi Gras – a tradition that has gone on for at least the past 25 years. Cracker Jacks used to be thrown off floats, but because the cardboard boxes were painful if they hit someone, the softer MoonPies took over as the most thrown edible item off Mardi Gras floats. Pictured is the giant edible MoonPie at the ‘MoonPie over Mobile’ New Year’s Eve event in 2015
‘You’ve got to pick spots that resonate with consumers but that are true to the brand,’ Johnston adds. ‘The first filter is, is this a believable new thing from MoonPie? And being a simple, Southern, sort of old timey brand, there’s just some things that are going on out there, real wild flavors and all these things that would not be in keeping with our heritage we’ll pass on. But if we find that sort of convergence, then we will do it.’
One change MoonPies did make this year was to go back to its original recipe.
‘It’s sort of a convergence of two things,’ Johnston says. ‘One is, consumers want to eat clean… take all your four-syllable words off your ingredient legend, take the preservatives out, put stuff in there that I can understand and that I’ve got in my cupboard at home. I mean, that’s a big industry trend.
‘That sort of gave us a platform on our 100th anniversary to go back to truly what is the original recipe, plus or minus an ingredient here or there, but we’ve taken out stuff that consumers don’t want anymore and it really honestly tastes a little better.’
In order to stay strong in a market dominated by huge corporations and brands, the Chattanooga Bakery has done several other things to stay relevant as well. In 19999, the bakery introduced the mini size, which Johnston says is more portable and a better sell for ‘portion controllers’.
‘People have long since established that they’d rather eat less of something good than all these knock-off, low-calorie, low-fat cruddy things that don’t taste any good. So the mini was a big part of that.’
This year will be the 10th anniversary of the ‘MoonPie over Mobile’ New Year’s Eve event in the Alabama city. Pictured is the 600-pound electric MoonPie that was dropped at the stroke of midnight to welcome 2016
Mobile welcomes 50,000 people to their ‘MoonPie over Mobile’ event when, moments before midnight, the crowds will start to chant: ‘MoonPie! MoonPie!’ before the giant electric MoonPie is dropped (pictured at the beginning of 2016)
The bakery has also brought in an ad agency to manage their social media, which helps the company cross generational gaps and fills in for their low amount of advertising. The MoonPie Twitter account is snarky and witty, matching the likes of fastfood chain Wendy’s which became known for its hilarious Twitter account this year.
‘The guy that’s doing our Twitter and all of our social media now, he’s just a real witty, fun guy and since we don’t do any TV advertising or anything like that, this is our way to get the word out,’ Campbell says. ‘He’s really, I think, gotten the attention of a lot of younger folks.’
Johnston says they’re also considering a few changes for 2018 or 2019 in the realm of types of cookies.
‘Marshmallow is our thing and that’s just sort of our space in this world, but there’s things we can do – without giving too much away – that will be on-trend nutritionally and unique and different and good.’
Even with the challenges that come with running a 100-year-old family-run business competing with huge snack corporations, MoonPies have remained popular and the Chattanooga Bakery is continuing to do well with the beloved snack that captures people’s hearts and memories.
‘This year will be our best year ever,’ Johnston says. ‘We’re not just limping into our hundredth anniversary, we’re actually thriving and we’re very grateful for that.’