There’s something about walking into a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store that takes people to their happy place.
And I don’t mean only if they’re of a certain age, or only if they’re on a road trip, or only if they’re really hungry and they’re on the way to the connected restaurant.
No, there’s some sort of magic in the air that makes it possible to take everyone of every age to that special, cozy, nostalgic place in their heart the second they walk up to the front door. Everyone from grandmas to 5-year-olds somehow get both excited and calm all at once.
Maybe it’s the rows of inviting rocking chairs waiting for them on the front porch, or the smell of home-cooked ham that fills the air; or maybe it’s the fact that no matter what they’re looking for from their childhood, Cracker Barrel seems to have it — even the stuff they didn’t know they wanted to find.
Of course, what would magic be without candy? And Cracker Barrel knows just how important sweets are to that nostalgia equation.
Each of their more than 600 stores features a huge selection of surprisingly fun treats. Tucked below the register, piled high on a display table and stacked on shelves all over the store, customers will find Pop Rocks, Old-Fashioned Fudge, Pecan Log Rolls, Bob’s Mint Sticks, Fun Dip, buckets of candy Thin Sticks, Airheads, mason jars filled with rainbow-colored gum balls, Sifers Valomilk marshmallow cups, and Chiclets gum. And so on and so on and so on.
“We really want that sense of wonder when you search through the [candy] table,” explains Kristie Stein, Cracker Barrel’s candy buyer.
Founded in 1969, as the company’s slogan says, Cracker Barrel is “Half restaurant, half store, all country.” Most of the more than 600 locations are along an interstate, and they all feature a restaurant where patrons can enjoy some Southern Style cooking. And, connected to each restaurant is an Old Country Store.
“Our founder thought the country store was the place where people came to share meals, and find things like big jars of candy and homemade jellies,” explains Laura Daily, senior v.p. of retail.
The founder Dan Evins, opened the first location in Lebanon, Tenn. on Sept. 19, 1969. People liked the atmosphere and the home-cooked food at the connected restaurant so much, that by 1977, Evins had opened 13 more stores — from Tennessee to Georgia.
The company continued to grow, and in 1981, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store went public with its stock. Between 1980 and 1990, 84 stores opened across the country, and by the end of July 1996, there were 257 locations.
Today, there are more than 70,000 employees at 624 stores in 42 states — absent only from the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii.
“A lot of people visit us on their family vacations, and they actually plan their trips around where they’re going to stop,” says Jeanne Ludington, Cracker Barrel’s corporate communications manager. “They’re pretty loyal, they’re multi-generational. There’s a great dynamic.”
Each location is company-owned, and Cracker Barrel says it has no plans to franchise because it wants to maintain consistency at every location.
That consistency means whether the store is in the middle of Georgia or off the interstate in the Chicago suburbs, travelers can expect to find the same friendly services from the staff, the same menu items, and the same retail collections of unusual items at every store. However, individual items within each retail collection sometimes vary due to sales and availability for replenishment.
It also means that travelers can expect to find the same friendly service from the staff, and the same selection of unusual items at every store.
Nostalgia for all ages
When it comes to the candy section at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, one of the most fascinating things is how insanely vast it is for such a relatively small space. Because even though the vintage signs on the walls and the wood accents throughout the store are reminiscent of the early part of the last century, the product selection is much broader than that.
It’s all part of the company’s effort to give that retro, nostalgic feeling to every age group. Whereas candy orange slices and black licorice might bring back memories for grandpa, it’s Pop Rocks and Fun Dip that do the trick for mom and dad — and so they stock both.
“For me, a Now and Later is retro,” Stein says with a laugh.
Beyond that, Cracker Barrel also stocks surprising items for teens and kids, such as large moustache lollipops, and giant gummy bears.
“One of the fun things is that we can offer new and trendy products in a fun way,” Stein says. “We don’t like to have shiny packaging. We like it to be crafty.”
Stein admits that the longer the candy has been manufactured, the better it tends to sell, likely because it’s that much harder to find anywhere else.
But, Cracker Barrel’s three best-selling candies in their Peg Bag program are a mix of old fashioned and contemporary — candy Orange Slices, Circus Peanuts, and Trolli’s Sour Brite Crawlers.
In an effort to take the nostalgia theme to the next level, they also stock fantastic Remember When boxes filled with candy from various decades. For example, the 1950’s Remember When box includes Chuckles, B.B. Bats, Sugar Daddy sticks, and candy necklaces, among other items. Meanwhile, the 1980s Remember When box has Ring Pops, Giant Chewy Sweetarts, Pixy Stix, Bubble Tape, and more.
Sometimes the stores end up stocking an item based on a request from a guest (as Cracker Barrel calls its customers) who remembers an item from his or her childhood.
Stein also looks for unexpected candy items at trade shows like the Sweets and Snacks Expo and the Fancy Food Shows, and then she also works closely with manufacturers to find items that work well in the Old Country Store’s unusual setting.
“When I work with manufacturers, it is a unique account,” she explains. “And, I like to spend time telling them about our guests. Just because it’s not your number one or two item, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work here.”
For example, Melvilles Bacon Lollipops sold really well at the stores, and so did a line of eat-in-shell peanuts.
“[Guests are] not coming in a for pita chip in my store, after they’ve just had a delicious home-cooked meal,” Stein says. “We just think that candy is the perfect complement to help the entire experience. It’s the reward.”
Sometimes, a candy maker will bring back old-fashioned packaging for an item for Cracker Barrel, like Goldenberg Peanut Chews did for them. Other times manufacturers will design a whole new candy for the stores.
“What is so fun, is the people that I get to work with [in the candy industry] are so enjoyable,” Stein says.”A lot of the candy companies are third- or fourth- or fifth- generation. We work with big companies, but we also work with a lot of little companies. And I get to help design products.”
As one would expect from a company that thrives on nostalgia, Cracker Barrel also loves to play up the holidays.
The stores offer free gift wrapping all year round, and the holiday sections are over the top. And it’s fair to say they get a jump on each season. For example, this year the stores were already decorating for Halloween in early August.
“For the holidays we just blow it out big,” Stein says. “We sell so many candy canes.”
Cracker Barrel also offers a wide range of private label candy, such as their Assorted Nostalgic Candy in peg bags, and Cracker Barrel Mint Tins, Peanut Brittle, and Pecan Log Rolls.
One of their most popular private label candies are the mason jars filled with gum balls. Stein says the line really communicates the old-fashioned theme the brand is going for, and the company is planning to expand it with other candy later this year.
As for the packaging design of the private label treats, Cracker Barrel has a large collection of artifacts and memorabilia in their decor warehouse that the retail team will sometimes go and look at when they need inspiration.
At the end of the day, Stein’s working to create a candy section that’s nothing like the candy aisle at the local big box retailer or even the local grocery store.
“You don’t find Orbit in our store,” she explains. “And, while we like brands that people are comfortable are with, such as Hershey, we make sure that we don’t offer the same Hershey bar that you see at Walmart.”
And that’s what makes it so fun to pick through the piles of candy at Cracker Barrel — you never know what you’re going to find.
At A Glance: Cracker Barrel
Headquarters: Lebanon, Tenn.
Founder: Dan Evins
Retail team: Laura Daily, senior v.p. of retail; Kristie Stein, candy buyer
Estimated 2012 Revenue: $2.6 billion, according to the financial firm Morningstar Inc.Top three selling candies: Candy Orange Slices, Circus Peanuts and Trolli Sour Brite Crawlers.