"You're just plain dumb."
This is what it means to leave three golf tees on the triangular pegboard at Cracker Barrel. The peg game is an addictive diversion supplied to every table. Leave two tees and you're "purty smart." Finish the brain buster with a single golf tee standing, and you might just be a genius. Unfortunately, I've been plain old dumb more often than not. But you'd have to be to keep on eating at the Cracker Barrel, right?
After sinking my teeth into a gritty, under-seasoned, more-gray-than-brown ribeye that was nearly inedible, I asked myself, "What is it about this place that people love so much?" It certainly can't be the cavalier service or the starchy white, flavorless grits. We decided to try and dig into the myth of Cracker Barrel to see what is so appealing.
The first Cracker Barrel opened back in 1969, a country general store with good country cooking to cater to weary travelers on the interstate between Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn. The concept obviously worked, because 43 years later, there are more than 600 locations in 42 states. And I'd imagine all of them are easily accessible from the interstate.
Curiously, the latest installment of Cracker Barrel can be found out in Mt. Pleasant on Highway 17 a couple miles north of the IOP connector. Despite being on a small artery far away from a big interstate, the parking lot in Mt. P has been full since it opened a few months back. It's rare to find an empty rocking chair out front on the weekends, when the crowds are waiting patiently for a seat in the large dining hall.
To get to the dining room, you have to wade through the country store, which is plum packed with retro toys, down home cookbooks, pancake mixes, fancy candles, and all sorts of Southern-themed ephemera. Getting around in this crowded area is never easy as diners waiting for their tables browse the goods. And who can resist the lure of buying a Books-On-Audio CD and returning it for a credit at the next Cracker Barrel along the highway?
The place is loud and bustling. You can hear the scraping of plates, chairs scratching against the floor, and a few dozen conversations. The walls are covered in a random assortment of antiques and junk. Some items would make good weapons: two sickles, a sword, and a musket to name a few. I suppose it's good to know you won't be empty handed if there's a run on hashbrown casserole.
Ask people what they like about Cracker Barrel and they'll name a few fan favorites, like the Chicken n' Dumplin's (which are far from divine). Many people go for the all-day breakfast, which makes sense because even a bad plate of breakfast food is still pretty good. How much can anyone screw up sausage, eggs, and bacon? That is, unless they overcook the eggs, which seemed to happen to me every time at the old CB. Don't even get me started on the sawmill gravy, which was more like meat porridge than anything else.
So what's the appeal? Maybe it's their staunch support of old-fashioned family values. Back in 1991 Cracker Barrel's founder demanded the firing of any employee who was openly gay or "whose preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values." After a backlash, apologies were made, and the policy was officially rescinded, but as recently as 2010 they only scored 15 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index: Rating American Workplaces on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality Report. In the 2011 report they scored 55, a 40 percent-point increase, which is laudable enough to avoid boycotting them, but it speaks volumes about how far the company needs to go in order to get above what would be an "F" on all but the most generously curved grading scale.
Ultimately, I think the appeal is as American as apple pie. Travelers on the dusty open road need a rocking chair where they can kick their feet up and rest before digging into a plate of grub, giving them energy to get to their final destination. Perhaps it appeals to our inner pioneer. We need to set by the hearth a bit before we head on our way. It's a nice thought, and one that Cracker Barrel perfectly plays into.
For me, the food is fair at best, but where else can you get a sweet tea and dumplin's, or even great biscuits, while driving through Ohio? I'm just not convinced that Mt. Pleasant is the right place to set up shop. There are many other options in the area that out-cook and out-serve Cracker Barrel in every way – Charleston's Café, Page's Okra Grill, and Eggs Up Grill, to name a few. What these places don't have is that fragrant, nostalgic country store. At least I walked out of there with a new pumpkin spice candle for $4.99 — the best bang for my buck.