I visited Cracker Barrel to see why the beloved road trip rest stop is so popular, and found plenty of charm but inconsistent food

Cracker Barrel restaurant sales have grown moderately, but store sales are booming.
I found some of the food underwhelming, but other dishes like the fried chicken were excellent.
I might go back if I was on a road trip, but I wouldn’t seek it out. 

Cracker Barrel is benefitting from the resurgence in casual dining, so I visited to see why it’s so successful.

The casual chain, which has over 660 locations in 45 states, is known for its loyal customers. Cracker Barrel frequently makes the top 20 in Nation’s Restaurant News’ top 200 list of eateries based on best service, food quality, and loyalty.

Source: NRN

Restaurant same-store sales were up about 1.5% in the first quarter of 2022 over the same period in 2019, but retail sales increased nearly 20% over 2019, per Cracker Barrel earnings.

Cracker Barrel was founded around the emerging customer base created by growing interstate highways and hungry travelers.

Source: Cracker Barrel

When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was the store has a large porch around the entrance accented by string lights, which looked cozy and inviting on a cold New York evening.

Through the porch windows, I could see that the huge store was packed.

Even before I entered, every surface seemed to be covered in old signs.

The restaurant is set up so that you have to walk through the general store to reach it.

The store seems to stock everything — from skincare products and clothes to toys and home decor.

It felt like there should have been some kind of scavenger hunt. I saw records, a wall of scented candles, college sports apparel, and plenty of other miscellaneous items.

Cracker Barrel has strategized to attract younger customers with targeted ads and virtual concepts. The Baby Yoda merchandise in the store seems like a continuation of that effort.

Source: NRN

There was a large section dedicated to toys and children’s books, but the Squishmallows seem to appeal to children and older collectors alike.

Source: Insider

The store and restaurant are integrated at key points. Food and drink specials are advertised next to merchandise, and you have to pay for your meal at the register in the store, where the cashier tries to sell you on candies and trinkets.

We walked through the store into the farmhouse-style interior of the restaurant, where we were seated immediately.

The restaurant is separated from the store by a partial divider that doesn’t reach the ceiling. It was enough to make them feel like distinct areas, and provided even more room for decor.

There’s no wasted space inside. Every foot of wall space is covered in some kind of vintage machinery, portrait, or other form of decorative memorabilia.

It feels like a hybrid of an estate sale and my grandfather’s house, but somehow it all works together.

Unlike the layout of the store, there’s no discernible reason certain pieces of decor are grouped together, besides the fact that they fit.

I found it charming. It was like the maximalism of The Cheesecake Factory, but it felt cozy instead of overwhelming.

Little details made it feel almost homey, like the curtains on the windows and unassuming chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in a typical kitchen.

The center of the restaurant had a large, wood-burning stone fireplace that I overheard customers request to be seated near.

I especially liked the detail of gas lamps on tables, providing cozy, warm lighting.

I also made sure to play Cracker Barrel’s iconic peg game, which several people told me about before my visit.

The game, which is simple to learn but tricky to beat, is so popular with customers that the chain sells it in the store and includes a virtual version in its app.

Source: Cracker Barrel

The menu was quite extensive, with tempting options like all-day breakfast.

Our waitress convinced us to try the two new drink specials, sugarplum and peach iced tea. They were both delicious without being too sweet.

We started out with a plate of biscuits.

Unfortunately, they were disappointingly chewy, not what I was expecting from a brand that portrays itself as “homestyle.”

I ended up ordering the Cracker Barrel Sampler, which seemed like the perfect way to try out as much of the menu as possible.

It was a huge portion, consisting of meatloaf, ham, chicken and dumplings, and my choice of three sides.

We had way too much food for two people, and knew some would be coming home with us.

The meatloaf was delicious, and I’d definitely order it again.

I’ve only had chicken and dumplings once before, but Cracker Barrel’s version was too bland for me.

The hash brown casserole, one of my sides, was probably the best thing I ordered, and I could’ve eaten a whole plate.

The mac and cheese, another side, was creamy and delicious.

The broccoli was a welcome respite from all the other heavy dishes.

My fiance ordered the signature fried chicken.

It was crispy, moist, and flavorful.

We both agreed it was one of the best things we ate there.

The whole meal came out to about $36 before tip.

I thought the price was a good value for the amount of food, and I can see why Cracker Barrel is a frequent rest stop for travelers.

The food was inconsistent, with some excellent dishes while others were underwhelming, but for the price I might stop again on a road trip if it was the most convenient option.

I felt like Cracker Barrel was relying too much on the store to fulfill its “homestyle” brand and not enough on the food, but growing store sales mean customers don’t agree with me.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Retail, Features, Retail, Business Visual Features, Casual Dining, Cracker Barrel, Food, Restaurants

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