11 Home-Cooked Facts About Cracker Barrel

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iStock

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.”  

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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