Some of you might remember my Cracker Barrel rant from way back in August. To avoid a long rehashing, I'll just say that, for as long as I can recall, Cracker Barrel billboards have comforted me. Whether traveling with my mother (as a child) or with my husband (as an adult), the sight of their brown-and-yellow logo has filled me with nostalgia – for the simple board games and puzzles of my youth, for the home-cooked meals at Mom's house, for wholesome books and television shows of long ago...
But sadly, Cracker Barrel – that ever-present, old-fashioned restaurant and country store – has lost some of its luster over the years. Every time, in fact, that Dan and I have ventured into one, we've left disappointed – whether because the service was slow, the food was lukewarm, or all of the above. It had reached the point where Dan simply refused to stop there ever again – no matter how much I, with my misguided sense of nostalgia and loyalty, tried to convince him otherwise.
So, we were at a standstill – Dan, unwilling to fork over another dime to this disillusioning establishment, and I, unable to let go of the illusion – that is, until I took the sagacious advice of one Stephanie Faris and shared my displeasure with CB's corporate headquarters. Of course, I never thought I would receive a response – after all, how many times have we complained about the practices of a corporation, only to be ignored? But, as reported in my September follow-up to the initial rant, I did indeed get a response – in the form of a heartfelt apology and a “gold card,” entitling me to a complimentary meal for two, at the Cracker Barrel of my choosing.
On that day in late September, I asked my online pals if I should swallow my pride and take Cracker Barrel up on its generous offer (and/or marketing ploy) – or if I should simply toss the card at my earliest opportunity. Well, several of you answered – Bridget, Martha, Roni, Becky, and Deb encouraged me to take advantage of the free food and excellent service that the card promised; Steph suggested that I just keep the card as a reminder of the lesson learned; and Susan thought it would be best to use the card, then never return. Well, today, while en route from the Florida Keys to New Orleans, Dan and I decided to give CB one more try. Yes, without my even pointing it out, Dan pulled into the parking lot of a rain-drenched Cracker Barrel in Brooksville, Florida, and smiled that naughty little smile of his. At that moment, the hunger pangs were so fierce that I was actually excited about our potentially ill-fated return to the CB fold, so after fumbling for the little “gold card,” which I had long ago stowed in my travel bag, we left the kitty in the van and headed inside for a short respite.
After strolling between the rocking chairs on the porch and passing through the ubiquitous inner country store – filled with an impressive selection of candy, candles, cookbooks, chimes, apparel, toys, dolls, games, and music, not to mention the paraphernalia of yesteryear (from washboards to rolling pins to watering cans) hanging from the ceiling – we were quickly seated beside a front window. Soon, a pleasant, middle-aged waitress named Carol arrived to take our drink order – hot Darjeeling tea for me, Diet Coke for Dan. Once she'd returned with the beverages, we were ready (if nervous) to order.
While waiting for our food, I took in our surroundings – from the bluegrass band playing on the speakers to the vintage décor on the latticed walls (including tennis rackets, fishing poles, old games such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and signs like “Headquarters for Keen Kutter quality pocket knives,” which reminded me of my stepbrother, Kit Keen, who, oddly enough, used to work in a Cracker Barrel). Dan, meanwhile, played with the peg game that was sitting on the tabletop. Of course, it didn't take him long to get frustrated with his inability to get rid of all the pegs but one (the object of the game) – although, to be fair, he's still suffering from the cold that I gave him three weeks ago.
By the time our food arrived, we had almost forgotten about the little “gold card,” which I had yet to show to our waitress. Dan immediately started delving into his sampler plate – containing chicken and dumplins, meatloaf, country-style ham, and his three chosen sides, corn, mashed potatoes, and fried apples – while I dug into my roast beef. It didn't take long, however, for us to remember why we had come – to give Cracker Barrel another honest-to-goodness chance – but while the service was surprisingly speedy and the food was still tasty, I admit that the meal was still less than satisfactory. Although my roast beef was warm and tender, the fried okra was delicious, and we both enjoyed the shared biscuits and corn muffins, Dan's food wasn't quite as hot as he's come to expect elsewhere. The fried apples were so cold, in fact, that he opted not to touch them at all.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the meal more than Dan did, but still, he admitted that it wasn't as bad as he'd expected it would be. Not a ringing endorsement, but better than it could have been. Perhaps I should've shown our waitress the “gold card” from the start, but I'm not typically a fan of special treatment – and frankly, I wanted to give our visit an honest try. I'm not sure what this says about the future of our Cracker Barrel encounters – it's likely that we'll never go again – but that won't stop me from feeling a little surge of nostalgia every time we pass by one of the ubiquitous billboards. In fact, we just passed another one in Alabama, and despite my mediocre meal earlier today, I still felt a moment of happiness. Is something wrong with me, or am I just a sucker for the joys of childhood?
6 hours ago