The Book on MoonPies 

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from David Magee’s new book, MoonPie: Biography of an Out-of-This-World Snack. Published by Jefferson Press, the $19.95 hardback book was released last month. Magee appears at the Southern Festival of Books at Cook Convention Center on October 14 at 9 a.m.

© Copyright David Magee

Chapter Three

Double Decker is Born

“My favorite MoonPie memory is from when I was expecting my first child. I seemed to crave the chocolate Double Decker MoonPie, and one night I got up in the middle of the night to sneak one while my husband was sleeping. I was too sleepy to sit up and eat it and fell asleep. The next morning my husband woke me up asking how the MoonPie got stuck on his t-shirt. Half asleep, I said I didn’t know. Then he asked how all the crumbs got in the bed. We have laughed about this for a long time.”

— Rebecca J., Stone Mountain, Georgia

With its marshmallow filling smashed between two unique-recipe cookies and all covered in flavored topping, the MoonPie from its very beginning has been driven to success by distinctive qualities that tickle the palate and satisfy desires of want. Though there have been other snacks made through the years which were good, most of these can no longer be found, meaning that good alone is not enough to survive. Take, for instance, the Marathon Bar, an eight-inch long chunk of braided caramel covered in chocolate; the candy was introduced by Mars, Inc. in 1973. A one-time personal favorite of mine because of its twisted shape, the bar had a legion of other loyal followers, but sales never grew much beyond average numbers, and Mars pulled the candy bar off the shelves by 1981.

For the Marathon Bar, flavor alone was not enough. Competing against Snickers, another bar produced by Mars, and the likes of Butterfinger and Heath, the Marathon Bar, however tasty and unique in design, never developed a growing fan base. On the other hand, the MoonPie had advantages outside of taste that began to parlay into significant growth in consumer consumption beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Under the direction of Sam Campbell III—who had filled the company’s leadership role as a young man after his father, Sam Campbell Jr., died of a heart attack and after Bobby Jones, the interim chief executive officer, died suddenly in an automobile accident—the bakery took advantage of improved transportation in the rural South to deliver more pies to more people in more places.

Thanks to new state and federal highways that began to spread in web-like fashion between the more populated areas in the South; and more road-worthy vehicles; and a sharp increase in the number of gasoline filling stations found along rural roads, transportation improvements in the 1950s served as a boundary-breaker for the MoonPie. Previously confined largely to states bordering Tennessee, like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia, the enhanced mobility served as a sort of product slingshot, hurling marshmallow sandwiches from the bakery’s production facility on King Street in downtown Chattanooga to open mouths of receptive, if not demanding, customers from Texas to Louisiana to Florida to Missouri. It was still mostly a Southern thing, with the bulk of sales taking place below the Mason-Dixon Line, but the big and soft snack was launched by unprecedented reception farther and farther from its home, becoming a true national product.

Chattanooga Bakery achieved this growth—putting nickel-priced MoonPies in the hands of hundreds of thousands more customers in most parts of the country—through a rather unconventional distribution system; there were no trucks adorned on the sides with images of the snack running to stores in towns like Tupelo, Mississippi, and Asheville, North Carolina. I had never really thought about it before, but upon investigation I was not surprised to learn that the bakery never ran its own trucks, since in of all my days of traveling to towns across the South, I cannot recall a single image of a Chattanooga Bakery truck parked in front of a market, back open, with a route salesman removing stacks of product. I remember, of course, seeing trucks bearing logos from other popular Southern brands like Coca-Cola, RC Cola, and Toms brand snack foods, yet no Chattanooga Bakery trucks. MoonPies were delivered to market primarily by other bakeries, those already servicing stores with products from loaf bread to snack cakes.

This approach may seem strange at first, if not counterproductive, but Chattanooga Bakery’s distribution arrangement worked exceptionally well for both the company and its many regional partners. In the beginning, these relationships formed because the company had many private label items that were re-branded and sold regionally by other bakeries, making the Chattanooga firm a “baker’s baker.” Over time, as the MoonPie increasingly became Chattanooga Bakery’s primary product, the partnerships continued to work well since the marshmallow sandwich was a unique and, therefore, non-competitive product, serving more as an offering enhancement for the other bakeries, which acted as a middle man. Most baking companies made their own ginger snaps and lemon cookies and various other snack cakes, but none had the original marshmallow sandwich.

Chattanooga Bakery produced the MoonPies, and shipped them to wholesale bakery partners across the country, which then sold the product to convenience stores and markets in their own service area. Typically, the regional bakeries had close-knit relationships with the retail store owners, and since they were already making calls to sell and stock their own products, the MoonPie fit in as a compliment and sales advantage. As a result, the other bakeries not only sold and stocked the MoonPie, they actively promoted it.

“The product fit better with bakeries,” said Sam Campbell III. “It was positioned as a long-shelf life cake because of its size and price, and the shelf life was twice as long as the other products they were selling. Also, it was more marshmallow than cookie, meaning it did not compete directly with most other items.”

The primary market for the MoonPie in this era was single-unit sales in food markets and rural stores, but in the late 1950s, the product found a home outside of the South for the first time due to one of history’s greatest migrations, the two-decade period in which millions of black Americans moved north from the South in search of opportunity in both jobs and living environment. Finding work in industrialized cities like Chicago, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan, hundreds of thousands of Southerners moved north in the movement that began in the late 1930s and continued for a quarter of a century: black migrant workers leaving low-paying, sun-baked jobs on hardscrabble Southern farms for better pay and a better quality of life, which resulted from burgeoning industries like the automotive.

Similar to the European immigrants who brought their favorite customs, such as tea, to the United States, or the immigrants who, crossing the border from Mexico to the United States in search of better jobs, carry with them cultural aspects and items like corn meal tortillas, these migrant workers from the South took their preferred tastes to the Motor and Windy cities. It was as if they moved north but never left the South behind, which was good news for a beloved snack like the MoonPie.

It only makes sense. I mean, leaving life on the Southern farm in the days before widespread rural electrification was one thing; leaving behind delicacies like the original marshmallow sandwich would have been much more difficult. One can just imagine their mindset: I can leave behind my house; I can leave behind my job; and, I can leave behind my friends, but I am not leaving behind my MoonPies. Such sentiment explains how the popular snack followed the workers to both Detroit and Chicago, quickly becoming a staple snack food in the commissaries, markets and vending machines serving industrial workers. The MoonPies were shipped north by the truckload to bakery partners that sold and distributed the product in a given area one store at a time.

Even with the market expansion of the late 1950s, the MoonPie still had to compete with some rival knockoff products that boasted similar qualities but never captured the taste and recognition of the original pie. In northern regions of the country and the Midwest, a similar snack called a “Scooter Pie” began to claim shelf space. It is no longer made but had been produced at the time by Nabisco, and one-time connoisseurs of the Scooter Pie say it only resembled the MoonPie in size and general composition, meaning it had marshmallow and cookie as base elements. But the ingredients were not the same and the Scooter Pie was baked differently, as well, resulting in a completely different snacking experience for the consumer.

There was also the “Wagon Wheel” in Canada and England and the “Whoopie Pie” in the northeast United States, but none of these products had either the heritage or flavor to endure, and so, ultimately, the knockoffs faded away. This was for good reason, in my opinion, as I recall eating an imposter occasionally in my childhood; these snacks were more of a chore than pleasure to eat since they did not resonate with the same harmony found between the layers with which I had grown accustomed. The differences were as stark as comparing a greenhouse-grown tomato picked in January to one freshly plucked from a garden vine in the dog days of July. They are both tomatoes, but all other comparisons stop there.

Still, even in light of the product deficiencies, the fact that other marshmallow sandwiches even existed in the marketplace kept pricing pressures on the company and its core product, limiting creativity and growth. Now costing a dime, the MoonPie was still a value, but to see the retail price rise only five cents after more than thirty years of production was problematic for Chattanooga Bakery. The company desperately needed to raise the price, but charging more than a dime for the original snack was viewed as too drastic and awkward of a jump, one that might create more inroads for imposter products.

There was also another challenge mounting against the MoonPie. By the end of the 1950s, vending machines were becoming increasingly popular. And not only were they more prolific, but the size of the slots in the machines, which held the snacks, had changed. Made to hold everything from honey buns to longer candy bars, the new vending machines posed a significant problem for Chattanooga Bakery: the MoonPie was in jeopardy because it was too slim and short in diameter to fit into spaces in new vending machine spaces. The snack that was “as big as the moon” needed additional thickness or it risked leaving behind a generation of devotees and becoming another half-baked has-been.

This is the point in business in which companies, or products, either change or suffer a slow and painful death. Chattanooga Bakery was completely exposed since it had dropped all of its other products, a decision based on knowledge Sam Campbell III had learned in business school: how “to read balance sheets from bottom to top.” The MoonPie was the most unique product ever attempted at the bakery, and people “kept coming back for it again and again.” Thus, the marshmallow sandwich was more profitable than ordinary, run-of-the-mill crackers and cakes, making it sustainable. But its future was jeopardized when these new types of vending machines threatened to leave it behind.

The saying, “If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it,” often applies to business decisions, but the consensus at Chattanooga Bakery was that the MoonPie belonged in vending machines throughout the country; they just had to figure out a way to make it work. Fortunately, for lovers of the original marshmallow sandwich, the company found a solution that actually created more consumers of the snack and allowed the bakery to charge a higher price point for its snack for the first time in years. This success dates back to the early days of employment of John Kosik, a former company executive that spent more than thirty years of his professional life promoting and selling MoonPies.

A Chattanooga native, Kosik went to work in management at Chattanooga Bakery after completing military duty. He had only been on the job for a year or two in the mid-1960s when it became apparent to all that something had to be done to get the MoonPie into the new vending machines. Kosik was out in the field, traveling with a broker for the company and searching for solutions to the vending challenge, when the idea for the Double Decker MoonPie came to him. It was a moment of epiphany, much like the revelation Earl Mitchell Jr. had in creating the first marshmallow sandwich more than a half century before. Because it was too skinny, the original Single Decker MoonPie was slipping through the vending machine slots. Well, thought Kosik, we’ll just add on another layer of cookie and marshmallow.

“It was just a fluke,” Kosik says. “We were looking at the pastry machines, and we could see that the slots were only so wide. But they could hold the honey bun, and it was fat. So I said, ‘Well, maybe we can get something fat in there.’”

On the spot, Kosik actually drew a picture consisting of a cookie and marshmallow, layered with another cookie and more marshmallow, and a third cookie on top. When he returned home from the trip that evening, he wrote a letter to the sales manager of Chattanooga Bakery suggesting the company consider making his concept—a double stacked MoonPie. Like most great inventions, the Double Decker MoonPie was met with much skepticism. Its main critic was the sales manager, a more seasoned employee, who was much older than Kosik.

“His only response,” Kosik remembers, “was ‘I got your letter, boy.’”

Despite the sales manager’s rejection, Kosik would not let the idea go away, believing it was the most sensible and doable solution to a significant problem. Unwilling to give up on the double-stacked MoonPie, Kosik wrote the sales manager again, drawing and sending along another illustration of the pie with a message that vending was getting bigger and bigger and that Chattanooga Bakery was going to miss out completely without a product to compete. On the second attempt, it gained enough attention that company owner and president Sam Campbell III was presented with the idea, and serious discussion about making a Double Decker MoonPie began. Calling in the company’s production supervisors to talk about feasibility, Sam Campbell III wanted to know if such a concept was possible from a production standpoint. If the company could not make the new sandwich cost effectively and in a timely manner, the double-stacked notion was worthless, even if it could fit into vending machines. Tinkering with the assembly process would prove risky since the bakery had just one production line.

“We were all sitting in the room,” Kosik says, “and all the problems were listed as to why it would be difficult. I told them we really need to make this pie, and Sam Campbell [III] finally said okay. He knew something needed to be done and made the call.

“The question then became how. But we had some of the most talented people in the baking business in Fred Stuart and Jimmy Sanders. The idea was to make some samples, running the product through the same line, but capping every other one. Then, we would pick the capped one up and put it on top of the other.”

The company sales manager that Kosik first approached about the idea was still not sold on the Double Decker, telling to anyone who would listen, “That boy is not going to be around here for very long.” But beginning with a slow, methodical pace that actually doubled the time of production, Chattanooga Bakery made some samples and took the Double Decker MoonPie to market through its sales force. A customer in Columbia, South Carolina, made the first order, asking for thirty cases of the double-stacked product. It did not take long before that first customer asked for a reorder, meaning consumers were responding.

However, Chattanooga Bakery was challenged with the production of the new item, and the sales force moved slowly in response, placing it with new customers at a manageable pace. One new Double Decker customer was added here and another there, but the payoff was that most all reordered rather quickly—more quickly, in fact, than orders for the original MoonPie were coming in.

As the Double Decker orders grew, Sanders and Stuart ramped up the machinery concurrently, figuring out ways to custom build a line that allowed for speed in creating the double-stacked snacks. It was not an easy task, considering most bakery equipment for specialty products is custom built from start to finish. The creation of a machine to double-cap a MoonPie, in many ways, is comparable to some of the world’s better inventions. Human hands can rather easily squirt a dollop of marshmallow on a cookie, place another cookie on top, squirt more marshmallow, and cap all this with another cookie. But getting a machine to perform like this, and in a hurry, proved to be a significant challenge at Chattanooga Bakery.

“There was nothing easy about it,” remembers Sam Campbell III. “To get it right, one has to go on top of the other. We had to manufacture equipment to get it there, and this took two years. It was a long, difficult process.”

Sanders, a Chattanooga Bakery employee for more than forty years and now retired, got the job done by working almost around the clock, seven days a week, tweaking the equipment until the line synchronized. “We had an automation problem,” Sanders recalls, “but finally, it just came together. Usually, they would give me the idea, and I would figure out some way to get it done. It all began with a desire for the product. It came down to the fact that something had to be done to make it, and you wanted the least amount of resistance, and the (product) quality had to be good.”

The company was still using hand-stackers at the time to straighten misguided caps, and the system was far from perfect in manufacturing terms, but Double Decker MoonPies began rolling off the line by the thousands. Customers from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Detroit, Michigan, were making new memories with their favorite snack one double-stacked bite at a time. It was a positive scenario for both the company and the consumer because the larger MoonPie sold for almost twice as much as the original Single Decker, meaning that Chattanooga Bakery finally broke out of its long price-point hindrance.

Customers were winners as well, getting a full three ounces more of the product. Priced at less than a quarter, the Double Decker was merely a continuance of the MoonPie’s long-standing value proposition. What’s more, the Double Decker MoonPie solved Chattanooga Bakery’s vending dilemma as it fit perfectly into the new machines, quickly becoming a featured pastry product in most markets.

In Detroit, for instance, hungry and price-conscious workers wanted snacks that were affordable, filling and flavorful, but did not slow them down. The bigger MoonPie apparently hit just the right spot as it became one of the most popular and requested snacks in automotive factories. A result of such popularity was that the Double Decker comprised fifty percent of all Chattanooga Bakery sales within just a couple of years. The increased revenue and market presence was a critical turning point for the bakery, as well as the long-term future of the original marshmallow sandwich.

“Looking at some company financials from way back then,” says Sam Campbell IV, the current president of Chattanooga Bakery, “it became apparent they needed to break out of some price points. The MoonPie was a dime snack forever.

“The Double Decker was a real homerun because our big pie would not fit in vending machine, and this form allowed us to charge a new price. But the best part was that the customer was actually getting more, for less.”

In business circles, that is called a win-win proposition. But in relation to the original marshmallow sandwich, be it employees of Chattanooga Bakery or consumers, it simply meant mo’ pie—which is all that really mattered.

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