Cracker Barrel has been offering hot food and old-timey merchandise to interstate travelers since 1969. Even if you’ve had your share of biscuits and played the ubiquitous peg solitaire game, you might not know everything about the nostalgic chain.
1. The Restaurant Was Originally a Tool to Sell Gas.
Cracker Barrel founder Dan Evins was a gasoline man, not a chef. Evins worked as a wholesaler for Shell right as the interstate system was taking off, and he needed a way to overcome the loss of business at service stations that were no longer on main tourist routes. In September 1969, he opened a gas station of his own near the interstate in his hometown of Lebanon, Tenn. and set out to win over the tourist trade. To entice customers into filling up at his station, Evins added a restaurant that felt reminiscent of the country stores he visited as a child.
2. Tourists Have Always Been the Key Market.
Once the original Lebanon Cracker Barrel opened, Evins zeroed in on the formula that would make the chain such a success: Serving comfort food quickly, reliably, and consistently through outposts close to interstate highways. Evins realized that customers may not eat at the same Cracker Barrel twice, but they would start looking for the home-cooked meals any time they took the road. His 2012 Washington Post obituary quoted an interview in which he explained his thinking to a restaurant trade publication in 1987: “Most people perceive tourists on the interstate as being mostly one-time customers. We knew that tourists were just creatures of habit.”
3. The Gas Didn’t Last Long.
Filling diners’ tanks with gas was Cracker Barrel’s original goal, and as Evins expanded the chain throughout the South, the restaurants kept selling gas. Before long, this business plan ground to a halt with the oil embargo and energy crisis of the 1970s, and the company stopped building new stores with gas facilities. Before long, the company gave up on the gas business entirely to focus on food and retailing.
4. Those Antiques on the Walls Are Real.
Fake antiques and reproductions wouldn’t feel authentic to customers, so Cracker Barrel shells out for the real thing. Larry Singleton is the company’s “resident archivist, anthropologist, and Americana aficionado.” When Evins opened the first Cracker Barrel, Singleton’s parents helped him decorate it with items from their antique shop, and their son carried on the family business by joining Cracker Barrel as a full-time expert in 1981. Singleton works out of the Cracker Barrel Décor Warehouse in Lebanon, Tenn., where his team restores pieces and places them on the walls of a mocked-up Cracker Barrel to perfect their placements.
5. The Antiques Come to Them Now.
When Evins chose to decorate his restaurants with real antiques, he needed help from savvy dealers and curators like Singleton’s parents. Today, things are a little easier. With over 600 restaurants stuffed with relics, Cracker Barrel has established itself as a reliable buyer of old Americana, which makes the job a little easier. "We used to go out looking for this stuff, but now it mostly just comes to us," décor warehouse manager Joe Stewart told USA Today in 2013. "People know what we like, and we really don't have to search for it anymore." That doesn’t mean the chain gets everything it wants—the same story notes that the tin advertising signs that are such a staple of the outlets’ look are getting hard to come by.
6. The Store Section is Worth Millions On Its Own.
Enticing wear travelers into doing a little folksy shopping while they wait for their table has proven to be a brilliant business move. In 2014, retail sales alone generated over $500 million, around 20 percent of the chain’s total revenue. According to the company, this total nets out to $415 per square foot of retail space, a number the Motley Fool notes is comparable to Wal-Mart’s retail acumen.
7. It Moves a Lot of Rocking Chairs.
Like the antiques on the walls, the rocking chairs on each restaurant’s porch have been around since Evins opened the first Cracker Barrel. To complete the outlet’s homey vibe, Evins put two rocking chairs from the Hinkle Chair Company of Springfield, Tenn. on the porch. That bit of branding has exploded into a big business of its own. Hinkle still makes the chairs - more than 200,000 rocking chairs for Cracker Barrel each year - and the signature furniture has become the chain’s biggest seller.
8. You Can Stop at a Cracker Barrel Almost Anywhere.
Becoming a publicly traded company in 1981 gave Cracker Barrel the capital it needed to really expand across the country, so hungry travelers can now find a Cracker Barrel almost anywhere there’s an interstate. There are a few exceptions, though. The company only operates in 42 states, which means you’ll have to keep on driving for a while or get on a ferry if you’re in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, or Wyoming.
9. The Internet Wants to Help You Beat the Peg Game.
Anyone who’s waited for an order in a Cracker Barrel has tried their hand at the peg solitaire game that sits on every one of the chain’s tables. And each of those players has probably known the frustration of leaving four or more pegs, a result that earns the taunt of “You’re just plain ‘eg-no-ra-moose.’” Luckily, they’re not alone. The deceptively tricky peg game has proven to be fertile ground for game theorists and computer scientists to study. Want to up your game quickly? As one particularly comprehensive site by George Bell puts it, “These rules of thumb are easy to remember: ‘Don't jump into a corner or out of the center.’”
10. Cracker Barrel Buys a Lot of Billboard Space.
When you’re trying to get drivers to pull off the interstate and eat some grits, you advertise to them when they’re on the road. Cracker Barrel keeps it simple and throws its name, logo, and images of food on billboards. Lots and lots of billboards. As the company’s website puts it, “With more than 1,400 billboards in 42 states, Cracker Barrel is one of the top five outdoor advertisers in the country.” With that many billboards, every change to their design, like a 2006 overhaul that added images of food to make viewers even hungrier, qualifies as major news.
11. The Company Has Also Used Quirkier Advertising Strategies.
Billboards are hardly high-tech, but the company has used even more straightforward marketing techniques at other points in its history. The company’s site notes that in the 1970s Evins got one of his recently opened stores’ managers to start calling random names from the local phone book to invite them to the new Cracker Barrel for a home-cooked meal on the house. As the company puts it, “Two weeks later, business picked up. All over town, people were talking about the new restaurant near the interstate and the manager who was calling people to invite them over for dinner.”