|Cracker Barrel opens store 600|
|Wednesday, March 30, 2011|
Lebanon firm builds on hearty meals, atmosphere
By KEN BECK
The original Cracker Barrel, which opened Sept. 19, 1969, near Lebanon at the intersection of Leeville Pike and Highway 109, served a less elaborate menu (no Sunrise Sampler in those early days) although it included many of the same great country fixings—biscuits, fried taters, pinto beans and turnip greens—but also peddled gasoline and even sold the antiques hanging from the walls and ceiling.
Some sources recollect the first store originally seated 38. Today, each Cracker Barrel serves nearly 1,000 diners daily.
One of the early board of director meetings took place over a woodpile near the back of that first store. But that was 41-½ years and 599 Cracker Barrels ago.
While the shape of the American economy has been rough the past few years, Cracker Barrel forges ahead with plans to open 11 new stores in the midst of this fiscal year, hopefully a healthy barometer for the company as well as the country in general. The company did $2.4 billion in sales last year.
“Opening our 600th store is a clear sign of the strength of this 41-year-old company,” said Michael A. Woodhouse, Cracker Barrel CEO and chairman. “We are growing, even through the most difficult economic times that most of us can remember.”
He attributes the company’s success to excellent food at a fair price served in pleasant surroundings.
“Cracker Barrel has always made sure to offer honest value. Guests know that they will get ample portions of high-quality food, served with genuine hospitality. We have stayed true to those values through the years. While other restaurants have cut portions, reduced quality or resorted to discounting to build their traffic, Cracker Barrel has remained true to the values with which the company was founded. Our mission statement is ‘pleasing people,’ and we strive every day to live up to that,” Woodhouse said.
“I want guests to feel like they have stepped into a home-away-from-home, and that they will be cared for like family while they relax and enjoy real home-style food and shopping that’s surprisingly unique, genuinely fun and reminiscent of America’s country heritage . . . at a fair price.”
With Lebanon as its birthplace as well as home office with 600 employees, Cracker Barrel has played an influential role in the economics of Lebanon (who knows how many local investors became millionaires through early investments in the business?) over four decades. The relationship seems to have been good for both town and company.
“Cracker Barrel was, of course, founded in Lebanon by Danny Evins, who grew up in Middle Tennessee. Lebanon had a big influence on Danny, and so therefore on Cracker Barrel. We like to believe that this goes both ways and that Cracker Barrel has been a good corporate citizen over the years,” Woodhouse said.
One of the original investors and board members of Cracker Barrel, Lebanon businessman Jack Cato bought 20,000 shares of stock for $10,000 when the company’s co-founders, Danny Evins and Tommy Lowe, were raising capital.
Danny Evins’ brother, the late Eddie Evins, convinced Cato to climb aboard.
“Eddie Evins and I were just good friends. He came around and asked me to invest in it, and I told him,
‘It’s crazy, Eddie, but I will,’” Cato recollected.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea. I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever done. That first one down here had an old train whistle that ran off air and a dinner bell and all the antiques hanging in it. It was a fun place to go to. People would see the antiques, things they had never seen before.
“It was sort of like finding something that’s good. People would go out and eat there, and then they’d go tell their friends.
“We had a board meeting on a woodpile out back (of the original store). Danny Evins called a meeting and told us all to meet him at the restaurant, and he’d feed us and we’d have a meeting because we needed to decide on making it larger. But because there were so many customers lined up waiting to be served, we never got to eat, and we had our meeting over a woodpile in back,” Cato remembered with a laugh.
“Cracker Barrel is unique. There’s not another restaurant like it in the country. All managers for the 600 Cracker Barrels have been trained right here in Lebanon. I think it has one of best training facility for managers you’ll find anywhere,” Cato said.
Another Lebanonite with long, fond memories of the company is Larry Singleton, Cracker Barrel’s décor manager. His late mother and father, Kathleen and Don Singleton, were the original pickers for Cracker Barrel, as they collected the antiques that went into the stores.
Larry, a 1976 graduate of Lebanon High, pumped gasoline and washed dishes at the first store. His parents were operating Spider Web Antiques when an offer came their way.
“When Danny Evins came up with idea to do the Cracker Barrel on 109, he asked Mom and Dad to come out and help decorate it like an old country store,” Singleton recalled.
About four years later the couple closed their antique shop as Cracker Barrel began opening more and more stores. They picked (antiques) but also did all the designing and the installation.
Larry followed in his parents’ shoes in the late 1970s, learning the ropes from his father.
“When I started we had about 33 stores. I’ve bought the stuff for every one of them since, and my department goes out and set them up,” said Singleton, who has been to hundreds of Cracker Barrels.
He and his staff design and decorate each store in the warehouse, then take it all down and put it back up at the new store, a three- to four-day job for two. Each store displays from 950 to 1,200 items.
“I guess the biggest part is being able to recreate those old country stores, finding lost items, things that are disappearing or covered up, and cleaning them up and put them out on display for people to see,” Singleton said, is the best part of his job.
“Our goal has always been to recreate that atmosphere of an old country store, and we’ve done that. Every one of them is unique in their own way,” he said, and that goes for the store in Frankfort, Ky.—Cracker Barrel #600.