An iconic Nashville flavor: Look inside Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s immersive new $2M facility

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Brianna Garcia makes a chocolate cluster at the Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s downtown storefront in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

For Laurie Spradley, a third-generation owner of the Goo Goo Chocolate Co., life sometimes seemed like a Willy Wonka set. 

Her father and grandfather purchased the Nashville-centric chocolate company in 1982, seven years before she was born, so Spradley was essentially delivered into a world of candy. 

"I honestly didn't understand that not everyone's parents went to work and made candy," she said. "I only realized how cool it was when my parents threw me a birthday party in first or second grade, and we all took the trolley to the manufacturing facility for a behind-the-scenes tour. My friends to this day still talk about it."

On Halloween, Spradley's parents would hand out full-sized Goo Goo Clusters, much to the neighbors' chagrin and their children's delight. 

Casey Fitzmaurice pours a milkshake into a caramel drizzled cup at Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s downtown storefront in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

That over-the-top tradition continues today with a recent $2 million transformation of the Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s downtown Nashville storefront. The gleaming but nostalgic facility now boasts a milkshake bar where adults can have liquor added to frothy whipped-cream crowned confections, though virgin shakes are available for teetotalers and kids.

On the opposite side of the store is a wall of touchscreens where customers can design Goo Goo Clusters with ingredients from the whimsical — Fruity Pebbles and potato chips, for example — to the premium. Once you've swiped your credit card, you can watch candy makers construct your dessert and place it in a decorative box. It's hard not to rip it open immediately. 

With the behind-the-bar candy making, the milkshake machines, a whirling (but fake) chocolate stream pouring into a copper vat and an overhead conveyor belt ferrying nothing of real import all around the store, it's a place of constant motion. It only adds to the magic. 

Magic is part of the brand

The first Goo Goo Cluster, famous for being America's first "combination" candy bar, was created by Howell Campbell in 1912 and made in a copper kettle at the Standard Candy Company at historic Clark Street and First Avenue North in downtown Nashville.

Filled with caramel, marshmallow nougat and fresh roasted peanuts, and covered in chocolate, the overstuffed candy deviated from the standard, boring rectangle of solid chocolate that defined most candy bars of the era. Comparatively, the Goo Goo was a technicolor 3D delight. 

Casey Fitzmaurice drizzles caramel over a boozy milkshake at Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s downtown storefront in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Early Goo Goo Cluster making was a tedious affair of filling custom molds with various ingredients ensconced in a milk chocolate shell, then letting the whole thing cure overnight. As production ramped up, necessitating more sophisticated equipment, the company outgrew its downtown roots. 

"As it expanded and grew into modern-day technology, of course it became too expensive to have a factory right in downtown Nashville," said Beth Sachan, vice president of sales and marketing for the company. Factory operations eventually moved near the airport. 

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When the Spradley family took over the company, their primary focus shifted to leveraging that factory to fulfill contract manufacturing orders for other candy companies. 

But nearing the Goo Goo's 100-year-anniversary, the Spradleys realized their flagship brand needed a boost, and they doubled down on the nostalgia factor while bringing the ingredients and packaging up to date. 

"We spun off Goo Goo into its own LLC to protect it," Spradley said. "I knew we were sitting on something special."

A retail store would follow in 2014, reestablishing Goo Goo's presence in downtown Nashville. There, among the sounds of Music Row, the more than century-old company staked a claim as one of the iconic flavors of Nashville's rapidly maturing food identity.

Ozzy Osbourne is a fan

The storefront became a tourist destination, drawing a record 1,263 on one October day in 2019. The average number of people coming through the store on a busy day hovers just below 800, according to Sachan.

The Goo Goo Cluster distribution footprint has also grown, and it's available in all 50 U.S. states and in Canada. Tractor Supply Co. represents the chocolate company's biggest source of retail sales by far. 

Now, Goo Goo's main candy production facility moves through 125,000 pounds of chocolate annually to make its flagship candy. Candy makers burn through another 40,000 pounds of chocolate per year at the downtown store, primarily in premium custom Goo Goos.

That adds up to 80,000 Goo Goo Clusters sold per week, or 11,500 per day, across all retail locations, not including the premium Goo Goos.

Jenn and Rob Hanks look at the menu at the Goo Goo Chocolate Co.'s downtown storefront in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

But even as its popularity spreads, the Goo Goo Cluster's identity is still anchored in the South, Spradley said.

"It's fun to be a part of the Nashville culture," she said. "It appeals to everyone."

That includes bachelorettes, tourists, country music stars, and even a visit from the classic rocker and rumored bat eater Ozzy Osbourne, who's reportedly gone sober — unless you count chocolate as a drug. 

Though it's not specifically designed for children, it's hard not to feel like a kid in a candy store at Goo Goo's retail spot — just ask Osbourne.

"He actually took a shot straight from one of the chocolate fountains," Spradley said.

Goo Goo Cluster

Goo Goo's allure is not limited to aging rockers. According to company lore, it's even a hit with infants. 

Founder Campbell, searching for a new name for his candy, told his fellow passengers on a streetcar commute about his new edible venture. He also mentioned his struggle to find a name for it. The conversation shifted to Campbell’s newborn son, with Campbell revealing his boy's newly uttered first words: “goo goo."

A passenger suggested he name his candy after that utterance, and from there a new slogan was born. 

"It's so good, people can ask for it from birth," Spradley said.

IF YOU GO

What: Goo Goo Chocolate Co. storefront.

Where: 116 Third Ave. S. Nashville, TN 37201

For more about hours and private candy classes, visit https://googoo.com.

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and a correspondent for The American South.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com