When visitors return home from a vacation to Nashville, their friends and family are likely to ask them about two of the region’s classic products. “Did you visit Jack Daniels?” and “Did you bring us any Goo Goos?” While it’s understandable that some people don’t realize that the famous Tennessee whiskey is actually made in a distillery that’s about a 90-minute drive from Nashville, Goo Goo Clusters are a quintessential Nashville product. Family-owned for more than a century, Goo Goo is a fixture of the city’s culinary history and is known nationally from references in popular culture on television shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Pickler and Ben,” “Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour,” where legendary rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his family made their own chocolate treats at Goo Goo’s downtown shop, and “American Idol,” where judge Keith Urban wore one of the company’s “What a Cluster” t-shirts on air, leading to a boom in orders on Goo Goo’s online souvenir store.
Goo Goo is also associated with the legendary Grand Ole Opry from years as a primary advertiser, leading to the historical rumor that “Goo” actually stands for “Grand Ole Opry.” If that were true, it would be quite a trick considering that the company actually predates the founding of the Opry by 13 years when Howell Campbell, Sr., invented the first combination candy bar cluster in 1912, creating a craveable concoction of creamy marshmallow, sweet caramel and peanuts encased in a thick coat of milk chocolate. The company line for the story behind the name is that Campbell’s son Howell, Jr., uttered his first words “goo goo,” leading a friend to suggest the name to Campbell, Sr. as “a treat so good that people will ask for it from birth!”
That baby grew up to be the second chief executive of the company, keeping it in the Campbell family for decades until it was purchased by the Spradley family in 1982. James Spradley and his son Jimmy Spradley ran the company for years and then brought Laurie, the third generation, into the company as part of the leadership team. Even though Goo Goo has a long history of family management, it wasn’t a direct path for Laurie to come on board as Director of Brand Development.
“Goo Goos have been in my family my whole life,” recalls Laurie. “My family bought the company before I was born. I remember one of my early birthday parties was a tour of the plant, and growing up on Richland Avenue where Halloween was such a huge deal, we were always known as ‘the Goo Goo house’ since we gave away full-size candy bars.”
Laurie studied marketing at Ole Miss and moved to New York City to make her own mark in the business world working in sales at a visual marketing firm. “There was not a thought in my head that I would come home for the family company until I was back in Nashville to visit one time, and my dad asked when I would move home,” shares Laurie. She waited for the company to grow to the point where they had a position that could utilize her talents, and in 2017 she officially came on board.
It was then that Laurie began working with another accomplished young woman with long connections to Goo Goo, but mainly as a consumer. Beth Sachan grew up in Cadiz, KY, and has fond memories of the delicious candy clusters. She reminisces, “They were always that one special treat! My mom and grandmother loved them. I vividly remember shopping with my mom when I was a child, and purchasing a Goo Goo to split.”
After graduating with a degree in marketing from Western Kentucky University, Beth went to work in the children’s publishing industry, but she never wavered in her love for Goo Goos. “Food has always been my passion,” she explains, “and I love to write, so I started up my own blog so I could talk about food and drink.” Goo Goo discovered Beth through her “Eat. Drink. Smile.” blog and reached out to her to share a story of the revitalization of the brand that was happening in advance of the company’s centennial year.
Beth continues, “Once they discovered how enthusiastic I was about the brand and about my personal history, they asked me to do some freelance blogger outreach and brand ambassador work. I even visited the production plant and learned the manufacturing process.” Within a few months, Beth was asked to come on board full-time as Director of Marketing.
At the time, Goo Goo was just entering growth mode, and Beth discovered that everyone was wearing multiple hats. “There were only three people handling all aspects of the brand: sales, marketing and customer service. People always think Goo Goo is this huge company, but in 2011 we were like a hundred-year-old start up!” When Laurie joined the company, Beth was elevated to VP of Sales and Marketing, and together the dynamic duo works on almost every aspect of the brand.
“We can sub for each other on just about everything,” explains Beth. “Laurie figured out a lot of our operational needs, and even though Jimmy isn’t in the office day-to-day, he’s really valuable as a consultant in terms of advice and business contacts.”
Laurie continues, “My dad went to business school and spent most of his professional career working here. He encourages us to learn things on our own, but he’s always there when we need him.”
Laurie and Beth aren’t the only women in leadership at Goo Goo. In fact, now that the company has grown to almost 25 employees, the entire management team is female, from operations to marketing to the warehouse manager. Laurie points out that this wasn’t necessarily intentional. “It just happened!” Beth continues, “One day we looked around and realized we were all women. We all get along, and we like to think that women are especially good at multitasking.”
This is a very important factor in managing the growth of the company. “We’re all up for anything,” remarks Laurie. Beth explains further, “There’s no job that’s beneath any of us. Last summer our air conditioner went out at the Goo Goo Shop, and chocolate and heat don’t go together too well. Mary Elliot, our store operations manager, spent all day on the blazing hot roof with the contractors trying to help fix it. We have high expectations that anyone will do anything to get things done!”
At the same time, management makes sure that everyone has fun. Laurie explains, “One of our core values is ‘C’mon, it’s just candy!’ We don’t take anything too seriously. We’ve done a good job creating a great work environment and coming up with our core values together.”
Beth is a big believer in empowering their team. “We’re women sticking together to lift each other up. Every small victory is a big win for the whole team, and we build that into our annual reviews.” These big wins include a major expansion for Goo Goo when they opened their first (and for now, only) retail Goo Goo Shop downtown in 2014. Previously, Goo Goos were sold online, wholesale to local hotels, at regional locations like Kroger and Walgreens and through national retailers with local ties such as Cracker Barrel, Hobby Lobby and Tractor Supply Company.
After looking for the perfect location for almost two years, the team discovered a space for the flagship retail store just off Broadway at 116 Third Ave. South. Beth says that when she saw the interior of the building with its exposed bricks and beams, she thought Oh gosh, this is perfect! We won’t have to spend a lot of money to make it look old! The location was ideal for what they were looking for.
They opened the 4,000-square-foot shop in stages, first with just a small retail area up front and then expanding with a dessert shop and chocolate kitchen. Beth saw the clientele change as the shop grew. “Once we opened the chocolate shop, we were a bigger draw for locals. We started making Premium Goo Goos so that we could offer something that was only available here.”
Those Premium Goo Goos continue to be a linchpin of the shop’s appeal. Made using the same basic ingredients as a standard Goo Goo but with elevated versions like dark Belgian chocolate and exotic fillings such as red velvet fudge or chocolate covered pretzels, the massive Premium Goo Goos really shine as part of their annual Summer Chef Series. Beth is a big fan of these efforts. “We feature local chefs from some of the best restaurants in Nashville and invite them into our kitchen to create their own special Goo Goos, which we rotate through the store every few weeks during the summer. The series culminates at the Music City Food + Wine Festival, where we let attendees taste all of them. We have big plans for our fifth annual Summer Chef Series this year, and we promise to keep you posted!”
The latest development at the Goo Goo Shop has been the addition of chocolate classes, family-friendly opportunities to get hands-on with brand. Held multiple times throughout the week, these classes allow students to design their own Premium Goo Goo, just like the chefs do. They get to take their creation home in addition to recipes from the dessert bar and a tasting of samples of the products baked by the pros in the Goo Goo kitchen. (“It’s definitely a real sugar rush,” promises Beth.) You can even book a private class or sign up for special classes that feature pairings of chocolates with wines or spirits with local connections.
For a company that is more than a century old, Goo Goo Cluster continues to evolve and reinvent itself, in no small part thanks to its able female leadership team. While both Beth and Laurie remind us that assembling this team of talented women was not intentional and won’t necessarily last forever, it’s hard to argue with their success and what they’ve been able to accomplish.
This article is sponsored by Goo Goo. All photography by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.