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Architecture + Branding: Cracker Barrel preserves Southern pedigree from porch to plate

1-Southern roots are showing

Travel along the US interstate system and you will likely come across a Cracker Barrel, a chain of family-friendly casual restaurants with a southern country theme, at one of the numerous exits along the way. At over 600 locations, covering 40-plus US states, Cracker Barrel has grown to become a common, comforting sight for road weary travellers.

Interstate I40/I85 through Burlington, NC (source: wikipedia)

Tennessee native Dan Evins, a Shell Oil sales representative, pioneered the restaurant and gift store amalgam in 1969, initially as a means to improve gasoline sales. The first of the innovative restaurant concept was built close to Interstate 40 in Lebanon, Tennessee, and in September 1969 began serving traditional Southern dishes including biscuits, grits, country ham and turnip greens.

Interstate I40 through the Smoky Mountains, NC (source: wikipedia)

Evins incorporated Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores in February 1970, and began leasing land on gasoline station sites near interstate highways to build-out more locations. The Cracker Barrel of that era featured on-site gas pumps, a practise that was in vogue until the oil shock of the 1970s. In the later half of the 1970s through the early 1980s, on-site gas stations would become less prominent, eventually being phased out entirely, as the restaurant and store operations gained increasing company focus.

Interstate I75/I85 downtown connector, view of the downtown skyline, Atlanta, GA (source: wikipedia)

In the early years, sites near highway exits in Southeastern and Midwestern US states were a natural fit. During the decades that followed, the chain would expand across the country, opening new locations in non-traditional areas like residential areas, therefore lessening the emphasis on prominent highway access points.

Although the site selection criteria changed over time, many characteristics that define Cracker Barrel have remained unwavering, including the traditional menu loaded with Southern comfort foods and the straightforward Southern influenced distinctive architectural design.

Cracker Barrel, Morrisville, NC (source: wikipedia)

2-Country Store sensibilities

From the outset, founder Dan Evins envisioned a trustworthy place, which would be welcoming, that would appeal to both friends and strangers to stop in for a home-cooked meal, that was unhurried and allowed folks to take a moment to slow down and that acted as a home away from home for homesick travellers. The essence of that kind of place was the traditional country store he frequented in his youth.

Country stores, also referred by aliases such as general stores, trading posts, village shops, were something every small community once had. Typically excelling in breadth, not depth of product, they also acted as the primary shopping destination in rural and small towns.

Gray’s General Store (Est 1788), Little Compton, Rhode Island (source: wikipedia)

However, more important than material subsistence for local residents, general stores served a social role, strengthening community ties and maintaining the social fabric. It was a place that was equal parts retail establishment and social network, a place to pick up essentials and catch up with the neighbours and the events of the day. It was a chance to change pace, slow down and to connect with others. Cracker Barrel even notes “a trip to the original Cracker Barrel was a lot like a friendly visit to a neighbor’s home” (CrackerBarrel.com).

3-Covered porch memoirs; Walk up, sit down, kick back

A typical Cracker Barrel is disarmingly simple, welcoming, comforting, with the homey vibe achieved in no small part by the building design and architecture. Pulling into a Cracker Barrel, one of the most prominent architectural features is the expansive front porch, stretching from end to end of the facade, filling the entire field of view. Purposely rustic and unhurried, it serves as an invitation to stop in, slow down and relax. Such an offer would have been difficult to resist for the travelling clientele that Cracker Barrel would initially seek to attract.

Chester Inn, Jonesborough, Tennessee (source: wikipedia)

The invitation to leisure is doubly encouraged with the provision of rocking chairs for guests to sit, read the newspaper and converse before or after enjoying a down-home country meal. As New Urbanism proponents contend, street-facing porches help to build communities, and the prominent street-facing porch typified by Cracker Barrel communicates a rustic openness and genuineness. The Hinkle rocking chairs populating the massive end-to-end porch has also become a Cracker Barrel fixture; with each location having them line the length of the porch.

Cracker Barrel, Cicero, New York

Cracker Barrel (facade), Watertown, New York

Themed around the traditional Southern U.S. General store ideal, the informal, unpretentious street-facing, rocking chair filled, porch clad façade, is supplemented by an equally unadorned rectilinear building, as evidenced by a profound lack of ornamentation and superficial elements.

Cracker Barrel (right side), Watertown, New York

Cracker Barrel (rear of building), Watertown, New York

Cracker Barrel (left side), Watertown, New York

Short of the adorned façade, all other sides are fairly blank and slab sided, clad in a palette of earth tones and natural materials, recalling traditional wooden exteriors and providing a timely nod to the agricultural heritage of the era and the litany of weathered farm buildings in rural small town landscapes.

Weathered farm building, along Highway 401, Ontario

Weathered fram building, along HIghway 400, Ontario

The open, friendly and communal values of the country store of old laid the foundation for the distinctive, welcoming design that Cracker Barrel would adopt and continues to promote. Like the menu, the design is recognizable, un-experimental and instinctively familiar, exhibiting no aspirations to emulate nouveau or in-vogue tendencies.

4-Distinctively different, from the outside in

Walking up to a Cracker Barrel is much like stepping into a firm handshake, no pretence, no posturing, just a warm familiar friend. Conversely, venturing inside is a cacophony of nostalgia and surprise at every turn. Whereas the exterior is plain, straightforward and unadorned, the interior is awash in frivolity and fun, overfilled with local artifacts, woodcrafts and other assorted goods for sale.

Cracker Barrel, Dunn, NC

The interior is adorned with unique and locally relevant original antique advertising signs, farm equipment, early kitchen appliances, toys, tools, farm implements, photos, and the like skilfully restored by Cracker Barrel. Cast iron pots and pans, scented candles, novelty items, collectible dolls, classic children’s toys, clothing, and old style chocolates and candies, is but a partial list of items featured for sale in the gift store.

General Store, Deaf Smith County Museum, Hereford, TX (source: wikipedia)

The unique crossbreed, as both restaurant and gift store, adds a further dimension to the dichotomy. Ingress and egress circumvents through the gift store, accentuating the laid-back invitation to slow down the pace, browse, look around and appreciate the surroundings. The process at Cracker Barrel feels deliberately anti-milestone driven, without any rush or pressure to get-in, get-seated, get-served, get-out revolving door throughput of other restaurant chains. The heritage affords guests the opportunity to take a country mile to their destination as opposed to having to decide in a New York minute.

5-Not just another roadside attraction

Authenticity, from the recipes to the heritage, is one of the differentiating factors that have allowed Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores to grow from its Southern base to a nationwide chain, spreading its culture and cuisine to the converts and the uninitiated. The Southern country store ideal translates well to many collective histories from the North, East, West and South, making it easy to grasp the concept as both familiar and instantly nostalgic.

Harking back to a simpler time in America’s not too distant past, when things seemed less hurried, uncomplicated and family mealtime was an opportunity to catch up, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores continues to operate on long held traditional principles.

Lebanon, Tennessee, downtown square (source: wikipedia)

Gallatin, Tennessee , downtown (source: wikipedia)

Franklin, Tennessee, downtown area (source: wikipedia)

Proudly displaying Southern roots and a staunch dedication to authenticity, in the menu and architectural identity, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores has combined these elements to work in concert to reinforce and promote a reverence for traditional values, without resorting to kitsch or retro trappings.

Cracker Barrel, Ashland, VA

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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