The Cracker Barrel is a place where you can feast on meatloaf, with three “country” sides and a buttermilk biscuit, while seated next to a stone hearth or with an oil lamp silently flickering on your table. It’s a place where you can, after your meal, buy a glass angel, a peacock fountain or cow-hide pillow in the attached gift store. It’s the kind of place that presents itself as America’s front porch, a rural refuge far from the cultural strife of our cities.
Cracker Barrel’s country tranquility was apparently shattered on Monday, when the chain announced on Facebook that customers could customize their breakfast plate with a plant-based protein as a replacement for their traditional bacon or smoked sausage.
“Discover new meat frontiers,” Cracker Barrel wrote in its post. “Experience the out of this world flavor of Impossible™ Sausage Made From Plants next time you Build Your Own Breakfast.”
The blowback was immediate and intense. Comments, hundreds and hundreds of them, were split along ideological, generational and political lines.
The more conservative takes:
“All the more reason to stop eating at Cracker Barrel. This is not what Cracker Barrel was to be all about,” one person wrote.
“I just lost respect for a once great Tennessee company,” another injected.
“If I wanted a salad … I would in fact order a salad … stop with the plant based ‘meat’ crap,” wrote a third.
“Oh Noes … the Cracker Barrel has gone WOKE!!! It really is the end times …,” another commented.
The more liberal viewpoints:
“Thank you Cracker Barrel Old Country Store you understand the direction the world is going. Whether you are doing it for marketing, profit or personal reasons, the vegans appreciate that there will be less suffering in the world because of your choice to offer cruelty free food,” wrote one animal lover.
“Lone star tick disease is spreading and some of you yayhoos are gonna have to eat some metaphorical crow with your vegan sausages after the ticks make you allergic to meat,” one person wrote, referring to the bite of a Lone Star tick, which can cause some to become allergic to red meat.
“Imagine getting upset because a menu option exists at a restaurant. Relax, Trumpers,” another added.
Then there were the comedic, the cruel and the anti-boomer rants:
“This rocks, now I have an option for me and the loud boomers won’t be there because they’re scared of plants!”
“How can the US possibly survive with *checks notes* more menu options at Cracker Barrell?”
“Some of y’all are working on your third Cracker Barrel heart attack, being so upset about something you don’t even have to eat.”
A spokeswoman for Cracker Barrel sent a statement to The Washington Post over the Impossible sausage dust-up:
“We appreciate the love our fans have for our all-day breakfast menu. At Cracker Barrel, we’re always exploring opportunities to expand how our guests experience breakfast and provide choices to satisfy every taste bud — whether people want to stick with traditional favorites like bacon and sausage or are hungry for a new, nutritious plant-based option like Impossible Sausage.”
The Facebook post puts Cracker Barrel squarely in the crosshairs of America’s culture wars. It’s a place familiar to numerous restaurants, though they have been limited mostly to dining rooms in urban areas, where a politician or Supreme Court justice may be trying to enjoy a meal shortly after a controversial decision or a policy went into effect.
Founded in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., Cracker Barrel is a publicly traded company with more than 660 stores in 45 states, according to its third-quarter investor report. In its 50-plus year history, the company has faced problems far more controversial than adding a plant-based sausage to its menu.
In 1991, Cracker Barrel was the target of gay rights activists after a leaked memo noted the chain would fire employees whose “sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society.” Numerous employees were reportedly terminated because of the policy, according to a Los Angeles Times story from 1991.
Cracker Barrel backed off from that policy, and the company issued a statement. “We have revisited our thinking on the subject and feel it only makes good business sense to continue to employ those folks who will provide the quality service our customers have come to expect from us,” the Times reported.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the company was a defendant in numerous lawsuits accusing it of discriminating against customers and employees based on race. In 2004, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Cracker Barrel. The agency said it found evidence at about 50 Cracker Barrel restaurants in seven states that managers and servers segregated customers by race, seated White customers before African American customers, and provided inferior service to African American diners.
Cracker Barrel quickly settled the suit. The company agreed to a five-year consent decree in which the company admitted no wrongdoing but said it would, among other things, adopt effective nondiscrimination policies and implement enhanced training programs. According to a USA Today story at the time, Cracker Barrel said it “has long had policies banning discrimination.”
For years, the company found it hard to shed its image.
“Even as recently as the 2016 election season, political pundits used the company as shorthand, referring to Cracker Barrel vs. Whole Foods counties,” the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote in 2019. “The implication meant rural at best and backward or alienated at worst.”
Cracker Barrel, the same news report noted, has made a “surprising cultural turnaround” by rejecting discrimination and embracing inclusivity.
The current brouhaha over plant-based proteins at Cracker Barrel may say as much about America’s cultural divide as it does about the company.
As one philosopher-king noted on Cracker Barrel’s post:
“This is why this country is doomed. Social media has driven most folks into living in a personal echo chamber where no one EVER disagrees with them or has a different, no less an opposing viewpoint. All this does is makes people nearly 100 percent intolerant of anything that doesn’t align with all their personal beliefs.”