This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Goo Goo Cluster — a delightful mix of caramel, marshmallow nougat, peanuts and chocolate. I'm a sucker for the cocoa bean, so when I'm offered a chance to peek behind the curtain at the Standard Candy Co., the home of the beloved Goo Goo, I can barely contain my excitement.
Cursed with high expectations, I'm hoping for giant open vats of chocolate, Willy Wonka style, and perhaps a Candyland-esque front lobby. That's what all candy factories look like, right?
Well, not really. But that's OK. When we get to the Goo Goo HQ — which looks kind of like a doctor's office or a place you could buy insurance — we are instructed to remove all jewelry before entering the actual production plant. While I shove my earrings in my pocket, I joke to our photographer, Eric, "Hey, ask her if you have to remove your cock ring." (He doesn't have one, and he won't ask. Wuss.) I try to pass through with a bracelet and a hair tie on my wrist, but those have to go too. They even remove my bedazzled phone case from my iPhone. I'm about to ask where to proceed for the retinal scan and body cavity search, but then I remember this place makes candy. Stuff we put in our mouths. Perhaps their fastidious attention to sanitary practices is warranted.
We are introduced to Goo Goo senior marketing manager Beth Sachan and executive vice president Lance Paine. (Lance, incidentally, is a dead ringer for SNL's Jason Sudeikis, which is totally unrelated to this story, unless you'd also be interested in seeing the "What Up With That?" dance inside a candy factory.) Beth and Lance provide us with some snazzy jackets, shoe booties and hairnets. (Eric and Lance get to wear hairnets on their 'staches, too. I'd wager there are a lot of moustache and beard nets in Nashville restaurant kitchens these days.)
While my co-worker Heather does a little Laverne & Shirley dance, we head to a sink to scrub in before we enter the facility. "This is just like on Grey's Anatomy," Heather says. "Now I know what it feels like to be a doctor!"
Entering the production area, we see a giant cylindrical container, which Lance says contains chocolate. We all admire the tall, dark, handsome treat. Unfortunately, the top is tightly secured, so my lifelong goal of diving into a 6-foot-tall vat of chocolate will have to wait.
Lance leads us through the production line, explaining how the process of making a Goo Goo — the world's first combination candy bar — has changed throughout the past century. We watch as a giant slab of nougat and caramel zips across a conveyer belt resembling a high-tech grocery checkout, and I try to imagine how they made this happen back in 1912. Horse-drawn nougat stretching? Workers rapidly stirring in large pots? Oompa Loompas?
We move down the line, where the nougat/caramel combo is cooled down by a substance called "snow," which looks like the stuff that comes out of a fire extinguisher. The slab is split into five lines and sliced into small squares. At this point, Lance grabs a piece off the line and offers us what I can only describe as Goo Goo guts. It's awesome — and it ends up all over my notepad, pants and phone. But still, awesome.
We pass a sad little reject bin of squares that didn't make the cut for whatever reason, but we are assured these guys go right back onto the conveyer belt, since the material is still clean and OK to use. Phew, they recycle — after all, we want to eat our Goo Goos with a clean conscience, if dirty hands. Next, the Goo Goo guts are covered in a coating chocolate, which helps the nuts stick to them. (Get your mind out of the gutter, pervs.) On this particular day, they are making the Supreme Goo Goos, which have pecans instead of peanuts. (There is also a peanut butter variety. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it.)
Lance tells us about the sustainable and eco-friendly practices Goo Goo currently follows. For example, the company purchases renewable energy credits to fund a wind farm in Texas, offsetting the electricity they use in their facility. Very cool.
As we walk along, I notice a metal detector near the end of the line, where the candies are drenched in their final layer of chocolate goodness. Lance says it's a standard practice in a food production facility. It also explains why we had to remove all of our jewelry upon entry — nobody wants a shard of metal in their Goo Goo. But I couldn't help but wonder: How do they screen for lost fingers? A finger would not show up in the metal detector. Hmmm ...
Lance grabs a few giant Goo Goos — as in double-sized, stuck-together Goo Goo conjoined twins that surely would have been weeded out before packaging — and lets us eat them straight off the conveyer belt. Heavenly. As I put myself into a sugar coma, I notice that a few Goos are sitting on a paper towel with numbers written below them. Lance says they have to keep a really close eye on the weight of each candy, as producing anything under or over the listed weight on the package would compromise the validity of the nutritional information. For those who count calories and eat Goo Goos, we salute you.
We move through the final phase where the Goos are wrapped and placed into packaging. Lance says the facility produces 150,000 Goo Goo Clusters in an eight-hour shift. I wonder how many twins get tossed during that timeframe? (Goo Goo honchos: I'd be happy to take those off your hands.)
As we exit the candy factory, I try to ask all my unanswered questions. Why are they called Goo Goo Clusters? There are theories, but nobody really knows. Why was the slogan, "A Nourishing Lunch for a Nickel!" featured on the old packaging? This slogan debuted during the Great Depression. Where do all the lost fingers go? Silence.
Lance and Beth tell us that Goo Goo would love to move downtown and open the factory to tourists, as the facility is currently not equipped for public tours. This would be a fitting move, as Goo Goos are part of Nashville history that would be right at home amid the honky-tonks and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In celebration of Goo Goo's 100th anniversary, the company is partnering with local organizations such as the Nashville Predators, the Nashville Sounds, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, as well as area restaurants, hotels and attractions. The real celebration takes place throughout the month of October: Check googoo.com for details on promotions and events.
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