Cracker Barrel looking for ways to make customers across America feel at home, as it prepares for an expansion push.
The Lebanon, Tennessee-based chain plans to open five new locations in the Las Vegas and Portland, Oregon areas in the next year — the company’s first entry into the West Coast.
“We’re extremely excited about our entry to the West and the Pacific Northwest,” Chris Ciavarra, Cracker Barrel’s senior vice president of marketing, told Business Insider. “For us, this is part of our plan: to expand our footprint and deliver the brand to new guests.”
Cracker Barrel is a concept unlike any other.
The chains has 635 locations in 42 states. Each location has an “Old Country Store” filled with a constantly-rotating array of goods from Yankee candles to kitschy accessories.
It doesn’t quite fit into a set category of restaurant, with Ciavarra saying the chain competes with diners at breakfast, casual dining at lunch and dinner, and quick service for travellers. One third of diners are travellers, thanks to marketing and locations near highways.
“It’s a place for people to stop, take a break, have a real meal, maybe shop for a little bit,” says Ciavarra.
In essence, it’s an old-school mission for the Old Country Store. However, expansion signals a time to tackle change at the chain.
“There are certain segments that we are trying to drive our appeal with harder,” says Ciavarra. “For example, with multicultural examples, like the Hispanic and African-American marketplace, we’ve put increasing focus on outreach efforts to those markets to try and increase the frequency of their visits.”
Cracker Barrel doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to racial diversity. In 1999, employees accused the chain of denying promotions to black employees. In 2004, the US Department of Justice filed and settled a lawsuit alleging the chain discriminated against African-American customers, including the practice of segregating customers based on race.
The 2004 settlement required the company to make major changes to practices and policies to prevent discrimination. As the company looks to expand its customer base, these changes are front-and-center.
“One of the first things that becomes important is having a place that feels like it’s for me, feels like it’s part of me,” says Ciavarra, who says most outreach is holistic and community-driven. “We’ve gone back and looked at our hiring strategies and our training strategies.”
A less obvious adjustment at Cracker Barrel is evolving the locations themselves to reflect local communities.
“We’ve gone and made sure our decor is truly representative of the communities we’re operating in,” says Ciavarra. “We’re an old country store — it pretty much stays the same for 30 years. But, what can happen is the community can change around us sometimes… So we’ve gone back and said ‘Does the decor still match the community around us, and if not, what do we have to do to make that happen?'”
Often, this is as simple as picking decor that showcases bodies of water if a location is near a lake. However, as shown by a Joe’s Crab Shack location that displayed of a photograph of a lynching, it’s also a matter of making sure decor isn’t racially offensive, and beyond that, inclusive of the local community.
Each Cracker Barrel location has 1,000 unique “artifacts” — pieces of homespun, Americana memorabilia picked from the company warehouse, which is half the size of a football field. Tailoring each location’s artifacts means drawing from local lore, as each restaurant has one wall dedicated entirely to celebrating local history. If you’re going to the upcoming Las Vegas Cracker Barrel locations, for example, you can expect plenty of casino-style signs, while the Western expansion means lots of coyboy knickknacks on the horizon.
In addition to the upcoming expansion and efforts to attract new demographics, other indications of a new era of Cracker Barrel include the recent launch of millennial-focused fast-casual chain Holler & Dash.
“We wanted to really leverage the strength of Cracker Barrel and provide a new kind of guest experience,” says Ciavarra, who says the new concept’s flavours are going to be more “innovative and modern.”
Still, Ciavarra says customers haven’t lost their appetite for Cracker Barrel’s old-school charm. He reports that a third of Cracker Barrel customers are millennials, while another third are baby boomers.
“When you go into our dining room, it’s a truly multi-generational experience,” he says.
“We’re trying to create a place that feels like home, where we can care for people like family.”
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