Traveling the highways of America, you drive through the places where many folks in this country still live: the small towns. One of them, just off the stretch of I-40 that runs between Nashville and Knoxville in Tennessee, is a place called Lebanon.
Now, unless you're a hunter and collector of antiques, you probably haven't heard of Lebanon. But that’s okay because folks in Lebanon like it just the way it is: comfortable, friendly, and a great place to come home to. No wonder Dan Evins thought it was just the place to start a business that, as it turns out, would someday become anything but small!
While working in the family gasoline business back in the late 1960s, Dan began thinking of ways to better meet the needs of folks on the road. Back then, the interstate system was still young and goods and services were hard to come by and often not to be trusted. What's more, with the rise of fast food, the little places that served up some of the real flavor of America seemed to be getting pushed out. Fast food might be a good business idea, Dan thought, but it sure wasn't such a hot eating idea. Truth is, Dan always saw mealtime as special – a time to catch up with your family, your friends, and your thoughts. Meals weren't meant to be swallowed down in three bites with a squirt of ketchup. One of Dan’s stories was to tell how, at the beginning of the suppers he remembered from childhood, his mother would let the family know they could start eating by pointing to the wide variety of country vegetables spread out across the table and saying, “Well, there’s the crop.”
Dan began to think about all the things that would make him feel comfortable were he far from home. Things like big jars of candy and homemade jellies, pot-bellied stoves, folks who let you take your time. He thought about simple, honest country food, and a store where you could buy someone a gift that was actually worth having.
What Dan had in mind was the kind of place he'd been to hundreds of times as a boy. It was a place called the country store, something every small community once had. Out west, they called them trading posts; up north, they were general stores. Where Dan grew up, in Middle Tennessee, they were old country stores, and Dan figured maybe folks traveling on the big new highways might appreciate a clean, comfortable, relaxed place to stop in for a good meal and some shopping that would offer up unique gifts and self-indulgences, many reminiscent of America’s country heritage.
As luck would have it, Dan's company owned a nice parcel of land on the outskirts of town. So with the help of a friend who was a contractor, plans were drawn up, and the first Cracker Barrel location opened on September 19, 1969.
Of course, building a country store isn't the same as being one. A lot of things would have to be just right, the two most important of which were what to serve, and who would serve it. So the corn bread came from cornmeal and an old country recipe, not a mix. Quality mattered, along with offering prices that were fair and honest. And thanks to the people who worked there, a trip to the original Cracker Barrel was a lot like a friendly visit to a neighbor's home.
Well, people liked Cracker Barrel and word got around. Pretty soon, folks were waiting in line for turnip greens, biscuits and gravy, and all the other good country cookin' that Cracker Barrel had to offer.
Naturally, it didn't take long for Dan and his investors (most of whom were local friends and associates) to see a whole lot more interstate ahead of them, and by 1977 there were 13 stores, from Tennessee clear to Georgia.
Now you might not have known it, but the early stores also sold gasoline, which makes sense since you’ll recall that Dan was in the family’s oil business. But when the oil embargo of the mid-seventies hit, new stores were built without the pumps. and today, we’re out of the gasoline business altogether. So if you're pulling in to one of our parking lots, make sure it's just your stomach that's on empty.
As time marched on, Cracker Barrel grew, and in 1981 the company went public with its stock. That same year, it was cited in Institutions Magazine as one of the nation's foremost growth chains, while Money Magazine listed the company as one of the top ten stocks in America. Suddenly flush with praise and the loyalty of guests who seemed to have an insatiable appetite for homestyle cooking, the company's expansion had even more drive behind it.
Between 1980 and 1990, eighty-four stores opened across the country. By the end of July 1996, there were 257 Cracker Barrel locations. And today, there are over 600 stores in 42 states, all owned by a company that has no plans for franchising so that we can maintain the consistency that our guests rely upon.
In fact, even though the business has grown, the important things have all stayed pretty much the same. Dan always said the mission is Pleasing People®, which he would explain as mutual respect. So even now, the mashed potatoes are scratch-made every day, the made from scratch biscuits come served with real butter, and the unique items in the gift shop offer genuine value.
Things are likely to stay this way, too. Call it nostalgia if you want, but the goal isn't simply to recreate to a time gone by – it's to preserve it. Because the way we see it, the lifestyle of rural America isn't about where you live. It's about how you live.