Growing up, I was raised on a steady diet of southern comfort food dished out by Cracker Barrel restaurants. To this day, I’m well acquainted with the Fancy Fixin’ menu and the wide array of antique décor that precariously hangs from every conceivable surface inside the Old Country Store. While the food is diabetically delicious, it’s the antiques that have always caught my attention and sparked my curiosity. I’ve often wondered why certain objects are selected for display, where they come from, and if they’re real.
Meet the man with the best job in America.
Antique pickers and collectors alike, would agree that Larry Singleton has the best job in America. As the Director of the Cracker Barrel Décor Warehouse, he oversees the massive antique operation that sources, restores, archives, and supplies each restaurant with antiques.
Singleton went to work for Cracker Barrel shortly after his brother-in-law, Dan W. Evins, opened the first Cracker Barrel store on September 19, 1969. Evins, a sales representative for Shell Oil, initially developed the restaurant and country store concept as a way to sell more gas.
The term “Cracker Barrel” originates from the 1800s when country stores regularly stored soda crackers inside barrels. Like the office water cooler of today, people would gather around the barrels and socialize. Over time, the term become synonymous with informal socializing in a comfortable, somewhat familiar country store, which is exactly the environment Cracker Barrel has recreated. And if you look closely at the logo, and all throughout each restaurant, you’ll see plenty of cracker barrels.
Roughly five miles west of Lebanon, Tennessee, at the intersection of Highway 109 and Leeville Pike, that first store cooked up homemade biscuits, grits, country ham, turnip greens, and other staples of southern cuisine. It also sold Shell Gasoline and was open 24 hours a day.
An education in picking antiques.
Having moved to Lebanon when he was a youngster, Larry’s brother-in-law hired him to wash dishes, buss tables, and pump gas at the Highway 109 restaurant. His introduction to the antique side of the business came when Evins hired his parents, Don and Kathleen Singleton, who owned a local antiques store, to fill the restaurant’s dining room and gift shop with antiques.
During the first few years, the antiques were more than decorations, they were a source of revenue. The Singleton’s kept the store supplied with antiques they picked from local auctions, estate sales, and flea markets. By 1977, the new restaurant, gift shop, and gasoline concept had expanded to 13 new locations from Kentucky to Georgia. Such expansion into new states forced the Singleton’s to explore new areas of the country for antiques. Little did they know at the time, but that was the start of something much greater.
Gone for two-to-three weeks at a time, the Singleton’s visited flea markets and antique fairs throughout the country―from Massachusetts to Texas. After he graduated from Lebanon High School in 1976, Larry joined his Dad on the long haul picking adventures, helping him earn a doctorate degree in picking.
Those early trips involved a station wagon that would get the Singleton’s to their intended destination. When the picking was good, they would rent moving trucks to haul the goods back home to Lebanon. Hauling more and more stuff with each new trip, their transportation methods quickly evolved into the use of a tractor-trailer.
Today, Larry Singleton oversees the antique side of Cracker Barrel operations, where his primary role continues to be sourcing and buying antiques. Over the years he’s built an impressive network of dealers and pickers across the country. Those relationships have helped cut down on travel, being that many dealers will contact him with new, old items they’re trying to move.
The Cracker Barrel Décor Warehouse
As of today, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant chain boasts 648 restaurants in 44 states. Each restaurant displays about 1,000 items―that’s nearly 700,000 antiques across the chain. And all are original!
In order to supply that kind of inventory, and to always be ready for the next store opening, Cracker Barrel established the Décor Warehouse―a 26,000-square-foot storage facility in Lebanon, Tennessee.
When an antique makes it way to the Décor Warehouse, it’s examined, restored if warranted, cleaned when needed, catalogued, and then stored.
When a location is selected for a new restaurant, a team of historians, archivists, and antique experts will research the town, its people, agricultural history, and businesses. Their findings help produce a profile of the town and its key attributes. Profile in hand, the décor team creates a pick list of antiques that will best tell that community’s story. The antiques are then picked from the warehouse’s inventory of 90,000 items!
Once picked, the décor team then designs and assembles the new restaurant onsite. Each section is photographed, disassembled, and then shipped to the restaurant where it is unpacked and reassembled according to the photographs.
Three antiques that you’ll see in every Cracker Barrel restaurant.
While each location features antiques that reflect the community’s history, there are three items that appear in every restaurant: an ox yolk and a horseshoe hanging over the front door, a traffic light over the restrooms, and a barrel with a checker board in front of the fireplace.
Solve the peg game in under a minute.
No story about the Cracker Barrel would be complete without making note of the peg game. Qualls & Son Novelties, a Lebanon, TN company, has made Cracker Barrel’s peg games since they first opened in 1969. They originally drilled the holes and stamped the instructions by hand.
It’s a known fact that if you’ve ever eaten at a Cracker Barrel, you’ve inevitably found yourself playing the game while waiting on your food to show up. And chances are, more times than not, you’ve quit in frustration, having been defeated and humiliated in front of friends and family.
Thanks to this tutorial, the next time you find yourself in front of the peg game, you’ll look like a genius… or someone that eats at Cracker Barrel way too much!