CLOSE
iStock
iStock

11 Home-Cooked Facts About Cracker Barrel

iStock
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.”  

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Food
The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
iStock
iStock

A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
iStock

For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
iStock

Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
iStock

But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
environment
London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
iStock
iStock

Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios