The second coming of Cracker Barrel
Oregon's second Cracker Barrel restaurant has opened in Beaverton.
Friends and family lined up for a free breakfast last Friday in a dress rehearsal for new hires. Star cooks and servers, handpicked by management, wore grey shirts and hovered at the elbow of the servers. The trainers had flown in from around the U.S., where Cracker Barrel has a total of 645 stores.
The Old Country Store was built from scratch on the corner of Canyon Road and 217.
Passing cars honked as dignitaries gathered for the ribbon cutting, which was organized by the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce. Denny Doyle, Mayor of the city of Beaverton, declared that "Cracker Barrel is a perfect fit for our city, it celebrates its roots and knows where it comes from, and makes everyone feel welcome." He segued into some statistics, such as "Beaverton is known as the number 12 place to live, according to Money Magazine." He added he had eaten in many Cracker Barrels in the south while visiting relatives and had fond memories.
"A lot of folks are saying 'Thank you mayor, it takes me back to when I was a kid.'"
The latest outpost is also heavily geared toward reviving memories. The store is stocked with vintage sugary treats, such as Boylan's root beer and pecan logs. Other country style decorations on sale include angel worry stones, quilts and videos about the civil war. Rebel flags are not prominently displayed. Much of the memorabilia is generic America, but there is a special Oregon section in the corner to the right of the fireplace, filled with lumber equipment.
The manager Thomas Bogert explained the Cracker Barrel special power to the crowd: "Our guests are cared for while enjoying home style food and shopping which is reminiscent of America's country home, all at a fair price."
Typical meals include Chicken n' Dumplins Plate, Momma's Pancake Breakfast, and Grilled Chicken Salad. Grits come in the side bowls, as do sweet boiled peaches.
A business home run
Doyle told the Business Tribune that Cracker Barrel did not need to be recruited by the economic development powers of Beaverton. "It was a business decision. It makes sense, we are a diverse community, there are a lot of people here from the south."
He said it was a home run for Beaverton.
"It was a business decision, no one had to say come here, they're here as part of the development with the hotel behind," he said referring to the four-story Marriott TownPlace Suites hotel being built on the block.
"One out of three people in Beaverton is a person of color, and one out of five was not born in the U.S. I campaigned on reaching out to them and saying, 'get on board, get on commissions, run for office, help us start a business.' We're doing a lot of things here on the edge of the Silicon Forest."
Originally from Indiana, Dean Busse was there with the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce, of which he is an honorary lifetime member. He does video marketing and copywriting at Dean Busse Marketing. "I'm part of the community and I'm here to support the local businesses," he declared after finishing a hearty breakfast of bacon, ham and grits.
Bruce Harvey and his wife Sue Harvey were drinking sweet iced tea and having their first Cracker Barrel experience. Sue was born and raised in McMinnville, and they live in Beaverton.
"I love the south because I'm from the south, Polaca Florida, by St. Augustine," said Bruce. "I wanted to try it out. I like the grits and you can't really get that too much around here." They had both ordered chicken fried steak.
"I come by here every day on my way to work," said Bruce. "I'd never heard of Cracker Barrel until they opened one in Tualatin, and it was a big deal. A lot of hype about it. We've never gotten over to that one."
Looking for other southern food, they had just tried the Screen Door in Portland. They said they heard of Bistro Montage, but the frog legs and alligator made them think more of Cajun food than southern home style.
District Manager Lance Eavs is responsible for the restaurants in Idaho, Montana and Oregon.
People are dedicated to Cracker Barrel because "it's our brand, our genuine hospitality. We take care of our folks, it's more personal. When people come in they're not a customer, they're our guests. You find a lot of people with Cracker Barrel they have a favorite employee or manager they just want to visit with. Not only to eat but to have that relationship. That's what Cracker Barrel is about."
Cracker Barrel philosophy
Stacie Vierra, a server, had just joined Cracker Barrel after 22 years with Finnigan's Mill in Newberg, a mom and pop bar restaurant.
She was holding the order tablet which carried the point of sale system called Max. Cracker Barrel is rolling them out across the system, a few stores at a time.
It shows tables numbered and color-coded to show what stage of their stay they are at. Their order can be scrolled through too.
It was her first time using a tablet. "It's very different for me because I've always hand-written my tickets," said the 48-year-old native Oregonian. "It's like an old person getting a smart phone. The young kids are used to the POS system. It was still a little stressful for me."
Vierra wanted to get out of the bar scene for a while. (They don't sell any alcohol at Cracker Barrel.) Her trainer was looking after her well but Vierra was tense. She added, "Finnigan's had their own system: pen and paper."
One of the grey-shirted trainers, Sandy Enfield from Junction City Kansas, has been here five weeks. She is staying for eight weeks total.
"We train all the hires so they are Cracker Barrel standard. I train the servers. They've been training on plate presentation and menu class."
Asked what is different abut Cracker Barrel, she replied.
"A lot of our values. A lot of our stuff is homemade, so it's like a home away from home. Most of it is in the menu but they have the information in case they are asked questions by the guests. We script our features of the day. So, we might 'We have our hand-battered cod' and teach them so that they can talk about that on Fridays."
Enfield has been at Cracker Barrel for 10 years. She started as a server. She applied to be a trainer and took some tests. "You've got to be pretty hospitable and live by the values that Cracker Barrel has."
She might not be paid like a manager, but she says compared to being a server, "The benefits are way better: when you watch someone not know a lot, then after two weeks they know so much and they've grown so much. The reward of being a trainer is so much better than the pay."
She noticed servers came to the job through ads on Indeed and the Cracker Barrel Facebook careers page.
Are people from Oregon different from other people she has trained?
"No, everyone's looking for a job and we're here to help them."
For Eavs, the modern-day eatery speed doesn't conflict with the leisurely pace of Cracker Barrel's country vibe.
"We want to turn tables just like anybody else, but ultimately our environment is come in, relax, we provide you with quick service, and you're free to go any time you want. We don't drive people out, we want people to enjoy their time with us," he said. Some people just have an hour for lunch, we need to provide a service where they can eat and relax in 30 minutes."
The server tablets save an average of one minute per guest in the ordering process. Orders go straight from the table to the kitchen where preparation can begin at once. And it is more accurate since there is no handwriting or transcription involved.
Eavs, who is from Missouri but has moved to Beaverton to run the region, said the biggest challenge is brand recognition. "Folks don't know what Cracker Barrel is because we've never been this far west. But a lot of people have eaten at one once and remember the experience."
You can't pay at the table, however. Guests must move to a checkout in the attached retail store, which Eave says is about a third of the business. And directing them through the gift shop encourages people to spend more money.
"People don't want to run their credit cards twice. If we paid at the table, they'd be saying 'We don't want to run our cards again."
In the store, which is part The Waltons, part K-Mart, patrons can choose from sweets and all manner of homey items such as angel worry stones and inspirational placards and cross stitch.
"Supposedly, our retail stores do more sales per square foot than a Walmart," Eavs says.
As the brand expand westwards, management is trying to think nationally. Usually they get the word out by billboards or Department of Transportation signs by the side of the road. "We're starting to do some TV now."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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