Danny Wood Evins, who saw an opportunity in the late Sixties for “a glorified gas station in which travelers could grab a bite and browse a gift shop, as well as fill up their tank” and turned it into the highly successful Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants, died in his company’s hometown of Lebanon, Tenn., Sunday, Bobby Allyn reports in The Tennessean. He was 76 and had cancer.
Evins, who was working as an oil jobber in a firm started by his grandfather, borrowed $40,000 to open the first outlet in 1969 after Highway 109 connected with Interstate 40.
“Cracker Barrel started as a place where [ordinary] people off the interstate could get their gas pumped by guys in overalls,” his son, Joe, tells Allyn. The name came from Evins’ recollection of country stores in the South where folks played checkers on empty cracker barrels, but it tried to appeal to all sorts of customers –- including well- and high-heeled ones.
“You might have a lady in a fur coat sitting next to a guy in overalls with muddy boots on,” Evins told Bill Carey in Fortunes, Fiddles & Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History. “She’s there because she thought it was quaint. He’s there because he was hungry.”
With “barn-style, weather-beaten wooden architecture,” the stores “stand like mile-markers along American highways,” writes Emily Langer in the Washington Post. “For fans, part of their draw is that no matter the location, the eating experience is almost always the same.”
The headline of a 1992 Forbes magazine article about the now-public chain -- Evins refused to franchise, fearing loss of quality -- was “Nostalgia Sells,” Langer reports. Indeed, the merchandise inside includes the likes of pillows with inscriptions such as, “No matter how far the seeds are sown, our hearts are drawn to home.”
Evins, who was born in 1935 and grew up in DeKalb County, Tennessee, remained true to his roots. “Uncle Herschel’s Favorite,” a breakfast platter, was indeed named after his uncle, Herschel McCartney, Allyn reports. “By just cooking cornbread and country grits, he was realizing a great American dream,” his daughter Donna says.
When Evins was asked, as he often was, if he ever thought his roadside restaurants would be so successful, “he would respond with a mock-serious ‘yes,’ and then smile as he added an offer to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to anyone who was naïve enough to believe that he had planned such growth in advance,” according to a Cracker Barrel press release about his death. “But he knew that the idea of an old country store would be well-received outside of the South, in parts of the country that had as their traditions the very similar general stores and trading posts of the old days.”
Current President & CEO Sandra B. Cochran promised to remain “true to Danny’s vision” in a statement, pointing out that “how Danny thought about his guests and his business from the beginning is captured in ‘Pleasing People,’ our mission statement.”
That statement’s section on employees includes the statement: “We want employees who demonstrate mutual respect for all persons regardless of their race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age or disability.” But in 1991, Evins issued a written edict to managers to “fire employees ‘whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values,’” as Douglas Martin reports in the New York Times.
“Protests erupted at restaurants in dozens of cities and towns; boycotts were organized; and shareholders complained,” Martin writes. “At a time when discrimination against gay people was not prohibited under the laws of most states or the federal government, and many companies practiced it, Cracker Barrel’s action stood out for its sheer blatancy.”
Evins apologized but the company did not explicitly ban discrimination against gay and transgender employees until 58% of shareholders, responding to continued pressure by the New York City Employees Retirement System and others, voted to do so in 2002.
“Danny was a straight-shooter and dedicated to authenticity,” said executive chairman Michael Woodhouse.
Executives say Evins’ development of the company’s “Personal Achievement Responsibility” training initiative, which increases benefits for employees as they progress and his early implementation of computer-based training programs are indicative of the employee-based innovations he championed, according to Alan Liddle in Nation’s Restaurant News. Managers could double their pay by meeting profitability goals, The Times' Martin reports.
Evins, who was named “Dannie” at birth but later changed the spelling and went by “Dan,” was CEO of Cracker Barrel from 1969 to 2001 and chairman until he retired in 2004, at which time he became chairman emeritus. Cracker Barrel now has more than 600 restaurants in 42 states -– a legacy to Evins’ secret sauce, which was not necessarily its gravy.
“Most people perceive tourists on the interstate as being mostly one-time customers,” Langer reports Evins told Restaurant Business in 1987. “We knew that tourists were just creatures of habit.”