Cracker Barrel rolls out homespun charm

by Brian Clarey

Before Eisenhower’s interstates sliced through America’s backwoods and rural communities, the nation’s byways were dotted with small, family-run rest stops with country food cooking in the kitchen, a slew of handmade crafts on display and a couple gas pumps out in the yard, places where you could get good chicken and dumplings and real biscuits and the waitress would call you “darlin’.”

You can still find joints like this, of course – the Hillbilly Hideaway out by Belews Creek comes to mind – but they’re much harder to find than the corporate incarnation of the old-time general store and kitchen: the Cracker Barrel.

Like most of the 552 Cracker Barrels in the US, Greensboro’s store is nestled in a crook formed by two major thoroughfares – I-40 and Wendover Avenue – and on a recent Sunday morning the place was absolutely packed with families big and small (mostly big). Dozens of people milled around the general store in front waiting for tables while in the rear dining room kids banged silverware and their parents and grandparents sipped coffee and juice.

It’s like this every weekend.

Dan Evins probably didn’t imagine just how popular his concept would be when he built the first Cracker Barrel restaurant on Highway 109 in Lebanon, Tenn. It was 1969, and in 1980 the company went public, trading for a dollar or so a share. It grew quickly: In 1991 the company opened its hundredth store and today a share of CBRL trades on the NASDAQ for almost $50.

But it’s hard to think about P&L when you’re seated at a table in the warmth of one of the restaurants, most of which have gigantic, wood-burning fireplaces near their kitchens. The homespun illusion is advanced by antique magazine ads hanging on the walls next to old farm equipment, vintage toys and weather-beaten signs tailored to the history of the town that restaurant is in.

According to the company website, Cracker Barrel employs an entire department to decorate the restaurants, finding site-specific artifacts and antiques to hang on the walls and dangle from the ceilings.

In one corner of the Greensboro location, partitioned off by latticework, hangs a framed advertisement for 3-in-One bicycle oil, celebrating its 29th anniversary in the forgotten year of 1923; a pair of snowshoes and an old-school set of skis; a glass display case holding old bottles and tins that once held balms, powders, tinctures and lotions; a vintage framed photo of somebody’s grandma; a scythe; a baseball bat; a sign proclaiming membership in the Marion County Farm Bureau and another advertising “Dutchess Trousers 10 cents a button – $1.00 a rip”, whatever that means.

The place smells like coffee and crayons on a Sunday morning, and the waitstaff hustles hundreds of plates of eggs, bacon, pork chops, grits, pancakes, biscuits, sausage and country gravy to the hungry throng. According to the company website, Cracker Barrel restaurants collectively go through 70,000 pounds of flour a day and in a year will crack 127 million eggs.

The breakfast menu is loaded with the basics, with a few concessions to healthier lifestyles like turkey sausage and sugar-free syrup available for the asking. But most people in my family go for the Uncle Herschel: two eggs, grits, fried apples or hashbrown casserole with a choice of meat: smoked ham, cured ham, hamburger steak, pork chop, chicken tenderloin of catfish fillet (we recommend the catfish, blackened).

Uncle Herschel was a real person, the actual uncle of Dan Evins, who lent the philosophy of the country gentleman to the corporate policy: “Treat everyone as you’d like to be treated yourself. Be down to earth, humble, soft spoken, and wear a smile.”

Says so right on their website.

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