When you talk to David Magee about the MoonPie, he constantly uses phrases like "Well, the funny thing about MoonPies is" and "That's the thing about MoonPies!" And before long, he's convinced you that there really are a lot of funny and interesting things about the South's favorite snack. So many, in fact, that he wrote a book about it.
For example, did you know that MoonPies have been around for 75 years and are still made by a family-owned bakery in Chattanooga? Or that the Chattanooga Bakery makes nothing else? Or that they make one million MoonPies every day and are thought to be the world's largest manufacturer of marshmallow?
All this, plus history, business philosophy, and personal reflection can be found in MoonPie: Biography of an Out-of-This-World Snack, which just hit stores. Magee will be signing copies at the Southern Festival of Books in Memphis on Saturday, October 14th.
How two cookies and some marshmallow went from portable miner's snack to Southern icon is a story of perseverance, luck, economics, loyalty, and a remarkably simple business plan.
"The craziest thing about MoonPies," Magee says, "is that they've never done any advertising. It's a totally customer-driven demand."
In fact, it all started with a customer's demand. Back in 1917, a bakery rep named Earl Mitchell was in the mining area of eastern Kentucky, unable to get his products placed in stores. So he went to the miners and posed a question: "What do y'all want?" They said they wanted something filling and portable. "How big?" A miner framed the moon with his hands and said, "This big!" Back at the plant, Mitchell noticed workers dipping graham crackers in marshmallow, then laying them out in the sun to dry. He covered them in chocolate, and a sweet-toothed monster was born.
The MoonPie's growth, as well as its famous and completely accidental marriage with RC Cola, resulted from filling a physical and economic need: Throughout the rural South, both items were the biggest, sweetest thing you could get for a nickel. (The two companies have never worked together on this idea, Magee says.) Over the years, Chattanooga Bakery stopped making anything else, and they still only make three flavors of MoonPie: vanilla, chocolate, and banana, with the occasional seasonal treat like orange for Halloween.
"The thing about MoonPies is they are still owned by the same family, which is incredibly rare," Magee says. "Their CEO tells me he gets dozens of calls a month from people wanting to buy the company. They don't sell because they're making a living off of it and because this snack, as we know it, that so many people love, would be gone if it gets bought up by some big conglomerate. Their philosophy is to underpromote and overdeliver. All they've focused on is making it and getting it on the shelves."
There have been challenges along the way, one of which resulted from what may be the perfect Southern business story. It seems that Sam Walton was fond of attending Wal-Mart grand openings, and one day in the 1980s he was at a store in Alabama. He asked an employee what problems they were faced with, and she said, "We can't get MoonPies." This was on a Friday afternoon. Sam called the bakery, and Sunday morning a rep was on his way to Bentonville with a selection of MoonPies. By Monday, the "mini" MoonPie was a "Sam's Choice" at the world's largest retailer, with Sam himself going to stores to make sure the displays were done right.
But the story doesn't end there. Chattanooga Bakery had made the mini MoonPie just for Sam, and they didn't have the machinery to handle the new item. They've only got one assembly line, and all their machines are custom-built; they are, after all, the only people in the world making the things. So when that line goes down, troubles arise. But they figured it out, and the mini is now a surging item at big discount stores.
Another problem was solved right here in Memphis. For years, the MoonPie was stuck at that nickel price, and when vending machines came along in the 1960s, the company needed to take advantage to fetch a higher price. Again, the answer was simple, and it came from a Memphis rep: Make it a double-decker! Again, the machines had to be retooled, and again, the MoonPie prevailed.
To date, the company has sold four billion MoonPies, most of them in what Magee calls "the MoonPie Belt": Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It's positioned, Magee says, as a between-meals, "mom-friendly" snack.
"I think it's a combination of memory -- like people getting their first MoonPie from a grandparent and getting that nostalgic, country-store feeling -- and that it's filling and tasty," Magee says. "They're not makin' a million a day if it doesn't taste good."
You can read an excerpt from MoonPie: Biography of an Out-of-This-World Snack on MemphisFlyer.com.
Booksigning by David Magee
9 a.m., Saturday, October 14th
Southern Festival of Books
Memphis Cook Convention Center