The Cracker Barrel was seen as a beacon of hope for dismal Keystone Avenue. Located next to the worst McDonald’s in all of Reno and constantly surrounded by a winding line from the In-N-Out drive-thru, the warm lighting and dark mahogany rocking chairs adorning the establishment provide somewhat of a comforting aura for patrons — but perhaps the lighting has to be dim to avoid blinding their usual patrons: people over the age of 70.
It was a Tuesday night when my friend Rylie basically begged me to take her to the new Cracker Barrel. She said she “yearned” for it. I happily obliged; all of my Cracker Barrel memories were happy and speckled with laughs with my grandparents, but I could not quite remember the food. After my surprisingly long and enduring trip to the “Old Country” store, no wonder only old people eat there because no one who is sharp in the mind, or the taste buds, would hock down the bland and overly salted food they call “southern comfort.”
“I’m from the South, so I love Cracker Barrel,” said a round man with a high-pitched voice to us as he held the door. “I came to get take out and I walked out with new salt and pepper shakers,” he said with the scrunch of the nose and the typical southern inflection at the end of the sentence. I trusted him and he betrayed me.
Walking in, we — Rylie, my roommate Spencer and I — were greeted with the typical gift shop all guests are used to (and I mean guests; anyone browsing the aisles and eating in the restaurant is family). The store opened not even a month ago, and still, they managed to stuff the place so filled with the typical gift store trash that 20 people would be considered above capacity. Jams, jellies, vintage candy, soda, shirts with peacock feathers, shirts with tassels, cast-iron pans, records from the 70s and, of course, pocket bibles, because what would a country-themed store be without a little religious trauma?
Browsing the aisles was cramped and somewhat grimy; the remnants of grandchildren, similar to myself, dragged there by their elders were evident. A huge section of slimes and gooey items was crammed into the back right corner. All of the somewhat viscous toys shaped like worms or space aliens were packaged in plastic with a small hole punched so you could feel the texture. The toys were all clean and shiny, aside from the one-inch matte color made from children touching the open area.
The sensory overload of the gift shop alone made us full, but a poster of Dolly Parton smiled down on us from near the cash register, giving us hope that if Dolly likes it, so will we. It’s as if her bright veneered smile and large bosoms hypnotized customers into thinking their food was worth it. If Cracker Barrel is a family, then Dolly Parton is their matriarch. The poster urged customers to sign up for their rewards program and potentially win a free Dolly Parton rocking chair. Of course, we signed up, and I am still holding out hope for the rocking chair that says “Rockstar” on the top.
During the 20-minute wait for our table, we laughed as we tried on the clothes seemingly made for a 40-plus public school teacher, complete with quarter sleeves, teal embellishments and sewn-on scarves. But the laughter ended when we were summoned by a voice from above: “The Cracker Barrel welcomes Emerson Drewes.”
The greeting was kind but hollow. The place had opened not even a month ago, and the freshly-minted employees were kind, almost too kind, but not genuine enough, almost like the cult brainwashing of the Cracker Barrel family had yet to set in. The known symbol of the Cracker Barrel stars embroidered onto the aprons has yet to be seen at this location. For those unaware, employees get stars on their aprons for completing core Cracker Barrel curriculum; so, if you got a waiter with four stars, you know you were being taken care of. But here, no one has been minted with a singular star; all of their name tags say “rising star,” but not for lack of trying — in fact, they were trying so hard it was somewhat intimidating.
Our waiter met us at the hostess stand; he was average height with life behind his eyes; I almost felt bad for him and the culture he had to endure there. “Today’s special is meatloaf with a side of green beans and mashed potatoes,” he said as he pointed to a comically large photo of the mealy-looking loaf. He said it too perfectly; there was no Cracker Barrel charm there yet, but he’ll get there with just enough indoctrination.
We all look at each other, our eyes communicating the same thing: “Who gets meatloaf at a restaurant?” As he ushers us to our table, all of the workers already inside, bussers, table runners and even some servers, turn around and step to the side to say something like “Welcome in” or “Enjoy your meal.” Almost like we were being sent to our last supper.
And, of course, we were the youngest people there.
Our waitress was Emily. Poor Emily. She was a short girl, about 20 years old, with jet-black hair french-braided and braces. You could tell she was new — well, everyone was — but especially her, since when she brought our waters there was about an inch-and-a-half of empty space at the top, as if she was yet to master the art of the serving tray and was afraid of spilling.
The drink orders are irrelevant, other than the less sweet than anticipated sweet tea I got. Browsing the menu was a literal feast for the eyes. In 10-point font, what looked to be hundreds of 1000 calorie-plus meals were scrawled across the menu. It was intimidating. Do I get an all-day breakfast? Fried chicken? Maybe just a salad? Or a hamburger? What’s a pancake taco?
The real, first taste of disappointment came from the Barrel Bites: their version of appetizers. The one perk of the rewards system was a free Barrel Bite right upon signing up. We got two: fried pickles and cheese curds. What we assumed was a country classic and something as experienced as Cracker Barrel wouldn’t dare mess up: we were wrong.
“These fried pickles taste like a McChicken,” said Spencer. He was right; upon first bite, I tasted Ronald McDonald all over them. For a cucumber that sits in vinegar, there was barely any salt on them, which is confusing considering how much salt was on the rest of the meal, and the crunch of the breading was non-existent. They were forgettable. The cheese curds tasted like fried Cheese Wiz, which could go either way depending on the crowd. The cheese was very sharp tasting and left a somewhat foul aftertaste that left your saliva somewhat tangy tasting, making your tongue writhe in your mouth. But, they were better than the chicken-tasting fried pickles.
The time in between the appetizers and the main course was somewhat blissful. Rylie, Spencer, and I delighted in pretending we were middle-aged women named Amy, Linda and Donna, respectively. The three fictional women were conjured up after we tried on some of the tacky clothing the gift shop sold. Donna called Linda trailer trash, and then Amy called out Donna for hiding her divorce. It was a riveting and somewhat freeing play-by-play as we pretended not to be struggling college students who considered Cracker Barrel fine dining, but alas.
Amidst our howling during improv practice, the meals arrived. I got the Sunday Homestyle Chicken with a side of fried okra and coleslaw. The plate came with two overly generous pieces of their boneless fried chicken that looked like bricks and were just as heavy as one. The okra was placed underneath the chicken in an unorganized fashion, but the coleslaw came in a small bowl, at least. Spencer got the chicken pot pie, which one would expect to be hard to mess up at Cracker Barrel of all places. It came in a lovely bright blue pan that Spencer considered stealing (he did not), and the puff pastry was somewhat square. The innards were just as confusing: runny with white and chewy pieces of chicken. And, Rylie got the steak. Why she got the steak is beyond anyone’s comprehension, but she said “where else can you find a steak for $17.99?” and I can’t argue with that logic. When it arrived, it was oddly oblong and small, that’s it.
One word to describe this meal: dry. The first bite — and I only took about four bites — of my chicken was odd. It was hard to penetrate the bulletproof adjacent breading, which was seasoned with strictly salt and pepper. As for the chicken, it was kind of slimy. When my teeth finally reached the white fibers, it felt like biting into the handle of one of those hairbrushes your mom had in the early 2000s. The handles that were toxically blue and had particles of dust and crumbs on them, that one. I moved onto the okra; it was fine, just fine. The breading was thin and incredibly dry; even the normally moist okra could not save it. The coleslaw was the star of my show which I promptly slurped down. It was wet but was the only source of hydration since Emily had not come back to refill my water since I got there almost an hour ago.
Spencer said his chicken pot pie was bland and “Marie Callender’s microwavable meals could do better than this,” and Rylie’s steak was heavily unseasoned. The lack of seasoning on everyone’s meal matched the demographic of old white people who frequented the joint. Our previous cackles had been silenced by the food, as we all sat to contemplate why we were so excited to go here in the first place. In fact, when poor Emily came by to check on us, we looked so somber she asked “What happened? You guys look so sad?” To which we smiled through gritted teeth and lied to her face. “We’re so full, we’re just digesting,” I said as I still had about a pound and three-quarters left of my brick o’ chicken.
Getting the check was a disappointment. The Cracker Barrel mystique had worn off after taking in three times the daily recommended intake for sodium, now just feeling bloated and awful. We wanted more, they promised us more, but alas we made our way to the retail counter to checkout. The checkout experience was an experience, after all, everyone was new and had an astonishing lack of training.
We asked to split the bill per item and Doc, a man who looked exactly like a man named Doc, had no idea how to do that. He called over his other coworker who also didn’t know how to split it, but she said “I’ll figure it out.” She didn’t. The only person who knew how was Damien, who was hauled out to Reno, Nevada from another Cracker Barrel store to open this godforsaken establishment. Damien looked weathered and his stature was slumped. It took him four times to ring Spencer up. Forgetting that Spencer had the rewards Dolly basically begged us to sign up for.
When I told him my order he said “Oh, you want it split too?” while the remaining amount was still $50. I’m a college student; I’m at Cracker Barrel for a cheap meal. I can’t afford to stomach $50; I don’t even have that in my bank account. While he ever so slowly rings me up, disaster hits. Doc and his coworker pulled the money drawer so aggressively out of the register it dropped to the ground and coins flew everywhere. It was so loud the restaurant went silent for a moment as the metals thrashed around together. But Damien was unfazed. He looked to his left, let out a laborious breath and said “Anyways.” After about 20 minutes, we were freed.
The experience of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store left me wanting nothing more than a glass of water that poor Emily never provided for me. The food left me so unsatisfied I didn’t even want to eat anything after, even though I only had four bites. And the atmosphere left me unsettled, with the employees not yet members of the Cult of Cracker Barrel.
I called my mother — she lived in Louisiana for almost 20 years — to tell her of the nightmarish experience, and all she said was “Cracker Barrel is better in the South.” But is it really?
Emerson Drewes can be reached via email at the firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @EmersonDrewes.