Dan Evins, founder of Cracker Barrel highway empire, dies

January 16, 2012

Dan Evins, the Cracker Barrel founder who turned his eatery into a highway empire, offering millions of hungry motorists a down-home alternative to traditional fast food, died Jan. 14 at his daughter’s home in Lebanon, Tenn.

He was 76 and had cancer, said his daughter Betsy Jennings.

“Nostalgia Sells” was the headline of a 1992 Forbes magazine article that chronicled the rise of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. The chain began in 1969 as a single shop in Lebanon, Mr. Evins’s boyhood home, and expanded across the southern United States before becoming the national grits-and-biscuits behemoth that it is today. The chain went public in 1981 and employs 67,000 people at 600 locations in 42 states.

Cracker Barrel stores, with their barn-style, weather-beaten wooden architecture, stand like mile-markers along American highways. For fans, part of their draw is that no matter the location, the eating experience is almost always the same.

Before being seated, visitors walk through a “country store” stocked with wares such as rock candy, marmalades and wooden toys. Once at their table, they open a brown-paper menu listing trend-resistant American dishes — hickory smoked country ham, “chicken n’ dumplins,” and meatloaf — and fare such as the catfish platter, turnip greens and country-fried steak.


Dan W. Evins, the founder of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, died Jan. 14 in Lebanon, Tenn. He was 76. In this image he is shown standing on the front porch of one of his stores. (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store)

After the meal, a porch lined with rocking chairs awaits.

Mr. Evins owed his success in large part to two insights about American life in the second part of the 20th century.

The first was that the interstate highway system, whose construction began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, would forever change the way people traveled and, therefore, ate.

His second was that some things never change, among them the appeal of a home-style meal, especially to someone who is on the road.

“Most people perceive tourists on the interstate as being mostly one-time customers,” he told the publication Restaurant Business in 1987. “We knew that tourists were just creatures of habit.”

In the 1960s, Mr. Evins was working at the oil company founded by his grandfather as a jobber, or wholesaler, with Shell. He dealt primarily with small gas stations in rural areas whose roads had become less traveled with the emergence of the highway system.

Sensing a looming problem, Mr. Evins built a gas station off the highway near Lebanon. To distinguish his station from others, he added a small restaurant and gift shop and called the outfit Cracker Barrel — a reference to old-time country stores where people played checkers atop barrels used to carry crackers and other wares.

Other eateries — most notably McDonald’s — had already become entrenched in the highway food market. Like the proprietors of successful fast-food chains, Mr. Evins emphasized predictability in service. But instead of pursuing a sleek and modern look, he played to customers’ nostalgia.

The store was a quick success — so quick that Mr. Evins decided to abandon gasoline for grits and country ham.Gas pumps were removed from Cracker Barrel outposts during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

In 2011, Cracker Barrel began installing rapid chargers for the Nissan Leaf, an electric car. There were other attempted modern updates. Cracker Barrel briefly offered regional menu items, including tortilla dishes at its Southwestern locations and bagels at it Northeastern ones, but they proved less popular than expected.

In the 1990s, Cracker Barrel was criticized for instituting the policy of not employing people “whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values.” The policy was reversed, and Mr. Evins called it a “mistake.”

After serving as chief executive officer from 1969 to 2001, he served as chairman of the board until his retirement in 2004.

Danny Wood Evins was born Oct. 11, 1935, in Smithville, Tenn. He served in the Marine Corps and attended Auburn University in Alabama before beginning his career. As a young man, he worked as an aide to his uncle, Rep. Joseph L. Evins, a 15-term Democrat from Tennessee, before joining the family’s oil company.

Mr. Evins was married several times. Survivors include five children; a brother; a sister; and 13 grandchildren.

Mr. Evins once explained the old-fashioned appeal of his restaurants.

“We aimed for authenticity,” he told Forbes, “but without the outhouses.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.