Cracker Barrel employees and customers say the restaurant chain needs a turnaround, too (2024)

In the late 1980s, Neal Klein and his family had several options when they wanted a hot meal on road trips through the South to visit relatives.

Only Cracker Barrel offered good food, "almost Disney World quality" service, and a game with pegs on a wooden board that his family could play as they waited. "I was charmed," Klein said. "Those are things that stay with you, and they make quite a memory."

But a Thanksgiving turkey dinner last fall at a Cracker Barrel in Florida, where Klein now lives, shattered that image.

"It tasted cheap," Klein said. "The stuffing was gloppy. It just had an unappetizing feel because everything had started to really congeal."

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Cracker Barrel has lost relevance with many of its formerly loyal customers — something even CEO Julie Felss Masino admitted during a company call with investors in May. The same month, the restaurant chain lowered its earnings expectations for the rest of its 2024 fiscal year, citing "weaker-than-anticipated traffic" at its locations.

"We've got to drive and reignite relevancy, and then we have to have food and an experience that guests crave," she said.

Three customers and an employee Business Insider spoke with said that Masino has her work cut out for her. They also pointed to some ways Cracker Barrel could get diners back in the chain's iconic rocking chairs waiting for a table.

Customers say that Cracker Barrel doesn't live up to its 'homestyle cooking' promise

Cracker Barrel has long promised "homestyle cooking" at its restaurants just off interstates and major roads.

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However, food quality issues were a theme among the customers that BI spoke with.

After Thanksgiving, Klein said he gave his local Cracker Barrel another shot on Easter Sunday. But if anything, he said, the experience was worse. The meat was overcooked and oversalted, he said, and the side of stuffing "was a greenish brown" with "a gray patina to it."

"It's really a tragedy," he said. "You realize you're in the middle of a crumbling citadel, and you're like, 'Holy crap, this is very sad.'"

Tom Smith, a Chicago-area Cracker Barrel customer who briefly worked a night shift at one of the restaurants, said he and his wife visit for its pancakes. He's also a fan of Cracker Barrel's Loaded Hashbrown Casserole, which is topped with bacon bits and melted cheese.

"But of all the other stuff I have had, it's just been average," he said. "I have had the fried chicken. I was like, 'It's good fried chicken, but so is Popeyes.'"

It wasn't always like this.

Bob Horner still remembers going to some of the first Cracker Barrel restaurants in Tennessee in the 1970s.

"The food was good, and the people were friendly," he said. "It was good home cooking."

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About 10 years ago, Horner said he started noticing some of his go-to orders, red-eye gravy and the chicken salad sandwich, disappearing from the menu.

Then, after pandemic restrictions started to ease, he noticed another dip. "The food quality went down, the portion size went down, the prices went up," Horner said.

"Our menu has evolved since we first opened our doors in 1969 and it will continue to evolve," a Cracker Barrel spokesperson said. The company has changed its menu to "allow us to make room for new, craveable dishes."

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The spokesperson added that Cracker Barrel is testing roughly 20 new items, such as Hashbrown Casserole Shepherd's Pie and Slow-Braised Pot Roast, at restaurants in Texas. The chain is also trialing "a new menu design that's easier for guests to navigate, and an optimized core menu reducing recipe complexities for employees."

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Cracker Barrel's push to sell more rubs some customers the wrong way

While executives have said little about food quality at Cracker Barrel, they have touted new additions to the menu. Many, they say, are meant to increase "check size" — essentially, to get patrons to spend more money. That's been a tall task, given that prices at restaurants remain high thanks to inflation.

One example is offering diners extra food to take home.

Last year, Cracker Barrel started advertising that customers could take home an extra entrée, such as fried chicken and mac n' cheese, for $5 if they purchased a regular one.

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But the option doesn't land well with some guests.

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One Cracker Barrel hostess in the Midwest, who asked not to be named in this article due to potential retaliation at work, said that her manager requires her to approach customers who are finishing their meals with a tray of the entrées and ask them if they'd like one to take with them. BI verified the hostess' identity and employment.

"You're supposed to come up with scenarios," she said. "'You have a kid at home, give him some meatloaf.'"

Last month, one guest responded: "It seems like Cracker Barrel is trying to squeeze every dollar out of its patrons."

"In my mind, I said, 'Yeah, good point,'" the hostess said.

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A Cracker Barrel spokesperson said patrons "have responded positively" to the $5 offering since it was introduced last year. The spokesperson did not comment on whether it is company policy to have employees pitch the entrées as described by the hostess.

The hostess added that management at her restaurant has told servers to sell guests more drinks, such as fancy coffees or beer. But often, the servers are "practically in tears because people are just ordering water with lemon," she said.

"They have a pretty big turnover of servers and people who clean up," she added.

Cracker Barrel could win back customers with a new definition of nostalgia

Bringing back some discontinued menu items could draw in some customers, Horner said. "I've heard a thousand times from people: 'Bring back the chicken liver dinner,'" he said.

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"If I could speak directly to the CEO," Horner said, "I would just tell her flat out: 'It's the food. It's not the decorations of a wall. It's not serving alcohol.'"

"I don't go to Cracker Barrel or order a glass of wine or a mixed drink or a beer," he added.

But Cracker Barrel's decor may not be helping. Many of the chain's roughly 660 locations are decked out in 1940s advertisem*nts, signs for tractor repair shops, and other trinkets that remind diners of the early 20th century and a rural lifestyle.

That may have worked a few decades ago, when people who lived through the Great Depression and World War II were frequent guests at Cracker Barrel stores. But as the population has aged, the signifiers of nostalgia have also changed, said Smith, the Chicago-area customer.

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Smith, who is 69, said much of the 1930s and 1940s decor even looks old to him. "You look at somebody that's 30, and they might as well have dinosaurs on the wall," he said.

"'Nostalgia' today would be PAC Man or Space Invaders," he added.

CEO Masino, who previously held executive roles at Taco Bell and Starbucks, has indicated that changes are coming to Cracker Barrel. The chain is testing new restaurant layouts, including "bookcases that open up the sight lines and allow for different displays," she said on the May earnings call.

But Klein, the Florida patron who got his first taste of Cracker Barrel in the 80s, said he's already moved on. He now visits a local diner when he wants a hearty meal out.

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"Life is really short," he told BI. "Do I really need to eat at chain restaurants more than a couple of times?"

Do you work at Cracker Barrel or another major restaurant and have a story idea to share? Reach out to this reporter at abitter@businessinsider.com

Cracker Barrel employees and customers say the restaurant chain needs a turnaround, too (2024)

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