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.”  

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

Necco Wafers and Sweethearts Are Making a Comeback—Whether You Like It or Not

Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This past Valentine’s Day was a little less sweet without Sweethearts conversation hearts gracing store shelves, but there’s some good news on the horizon. According to CandyStore.com, Necco-brand candies are coming back—well, some of them, at least.

The future of classic candies like Sweethearts conversation hearts, Necco Wafers, Clark Bars, Mary Janes, and Sky Bars has been uncertain ever since the New England Confectionery Company went out of business last year. People sent online retailer CandyStore.com thousands of emails asking what would become of their favorite confections, so the website’s staff painstakingly “tracked down the fate of all the Necco candy brands,” according to a blog post.

Spangler Candy Company, which acquired a couple of the Necco brands, appears to be keeping its promise of bringing back Necco Wafers, Sweethearts, and Canada Mints. However, the new owner is still testing recipes, and the time frame for their return remains undetermined.

“We are committed to making sure these brands meet consumer expectations when they reenter the market," Spangler CEO Kirk Vashaw told the candy website. "Doing it right takes time."

Only one of the original Necco brands, Candy Buttons, is currently available for purchase under new ownership. There is also a good chance that several other candies—including Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mighty Malts, Haviland Thin Mints, Slap Stix, and various flavored chews—will be returning in the future. The rights to many of these brands were bought by different companies, some of which are now experimenting with production methods. For instance, the CEO of the Boyer Candy Company, which now owns Clark Bars, said recent attempts to produce the candy have resulted in Clark Bars “coming out in the shape of hot dogs,” which is not ideal. (Though they reportedly “taste fantastic.”)

As for Mary Janes and Squirrel Nut Zippers: those candies remain in greater peril. The Mary Jane brand is still for sale, and there’s some confusion about who owns the Zippers trademark. The latter can still be bought from CandyStore.com, but sadly, Mary Janes have become nearly impossible to find. “Panic buyers of Mary Janes are really glad they did,” the website states. “Their secret stash is the best place to find them.”

For more details about the future of your favorite Necco candies, check out CandyStore.com’s blog post. In the meantime, you can still find some of the discontinued candies on Amazon and other online retailers, albeit for very high prices.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER