Cracker Barrel wants to become hip. Can it?

CEO Julie Felss Masino says the brand has “lost some of its shine" and has plans to regain relevance

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 2, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

An exterior view of a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. (Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An exterior view of a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. (Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The average Cracker Barrel restaurant has 1,000 pieces of decor lining its Southern country-themed walls. Some of these are standard from location to location — like the traffic lights hung over the restroom doors or the barrels with  checkerboards in front of the fireplaces — while others differ based on the history of the surrounding community. 

For instance, Fort Payne, Alabama was known at the beginning of the 20th century as the “Sock Capital of the World” because its textile mills produced over half the socks and hosiery worn in the United States; as a result, the city’s local Cracker Barrel features an entire wall adorned with items like industrial sock stretchers, darning needles and knitting machines. Each of those items is authentic (there are, per the company, no set pieces or reproductions featured among the over 700,000 antiques featured in their stores) and comes from the Cracker Barrel Decor Warehouse, a 26,000 square-foot facility in Lebanon, Tennessee. 

For 50 years, the warehouse was overseen by one family, the Singletons. When Cracker Barrel founder Dan Evins began expanding across the country in 1969, he hired antique dealers Don and Kathleen Singleton to become full-time designers. A decade later, their son, Larry, became the company’s chief picker until his retirement in 2019. Every butter churn, yellowed photograph, mounted deer head and tin Coca-Cola sign on-display has been specifically chosen, collected, repaired, cleaned and restored for the 687-location chain. 

Despite the fact that Cracker Barrel is just over five decades old, there are hundreds of years of history hanging on its walls — some of which the company’s current chief executive officer,  Julie Felss Masino, has hinted may simply be a thing of the past as she feels the brand has “lost some of its shine.” 

Earlier this month, Masino announced several major changes to Cracker Barrel, including some menu updates and a $700 million makeover of its restaurants, with an estimated 30 of its locations receiving updates within the next fiscal year. “Historically, Cracker Barrel has made limited changes to our design aesthetic, and we've probably relied a little too much on what was perceived to be the timeless nature of our concept," Masino said in a May 16 conference call. 

Masino noted in the call that customer feedback to the changes — which involves using “a different different color palette, updating lighting, offering more comfortable seating and simplifying decor and fixtures” — has so far been positive. 

The chain isn’t alone in shifting towards a sleeker, more simplified style in recent years; in the fast-food realm, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell are all among the major players that have moved towards a more neutral, if decidedly homogenized, design scheme. 

However, Cracker Barrel is a brand for which its anachronism has long been a selling point, as well as a brand whose customer base reacts strongly to any whiff of change. As such, while Masino is eager to reach new customers to regain some of Cracker Barrel’s market share, there’s a question of whether the chain’s current customers will, in turn, embrace the new Cracker Barrel. 

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"We're just not as relevant as we once were," Massino said during the conference call held to discuss her planned changes. 

Yet some of the chain’s past attempts at pursuing relevance — even small ones — haven’t always been met favorably by its current customers. For instance, in 2022, Cracker Barrel announced it would be adding vegan sausage to its menu with a simple Facebook post, reading: “Discover new meat frontiers. Experience the out of this world flavor of Impossible™ Sausage Made From Plants next time you Build Your Own Breakfast.” 

The backlash was almost immediate from a subset of the brand’s fans who viewed the move as, at best, incongruous with the old country store experience or, worse in their eyes, a sign Cracker Barrel had gone “woke.” 

"We don't eat in an old country store for woke burgers," one commenter wrote on Facebook regarding the announcement, while someone else added: "I just lost respect for a once great Tennessee company." 

While some of these comments were, potentially, tongue-in-cheek (for instance, “This is the future us leftists want. For the domain of all right winged red necks to turn on them and force veganism upon them”) the entire situation was a microcosm of the risks associated with making shifts as a brand whose customer base is more conservative, both culturally and politically. There are ample opportunities to alienate longtime regulars, especially when simple menu items get drafted into an increasingly one-sided culture war. 

However, from a financial perspective, it’s imperative that Cracker Barrel do something different. According to a report from CBS News, Cracker Barrel's sales have flatlined, with “revenue for its most recent quarter unchanged at $935.4 compared with a year earlier, while its stock has tumbled 40% so far in 2024.” Maybe a sleeker dining room is the first step to getting back on track. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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