Secrets Cracker Barrel doesn't want you to know

Cracker Barrel is a restaurant that can be found beside many of this country's interstates, conveniently placed to provide convenient meals and rocking chairs to tired and hungry travelers. Its style is that of an old fashioned Southern kitchen, and it's made to make you feel like you're at grandma's house — if your grandmother was Southern, a shameless stereotype, and lived in an old country store. Since its founding in 1969, Cracker Barrel has grown from a single restaurant in Lebanon, Tennessee, to over 600 locations in more than 40 states. But as you will see, behind the nostalgia, Southern stereotypes, pancakes, grits, and tchotchkes, the Barrel has collected a few secrets even uglier than its logo. Here's everything the Cracker Barrel doesn't want you to know.

Workers were fired for not displaying 'normal heterosexual values'

Back in 1991, Cracker Barrel had high opinions of itself, especially as an example of traditional American values. One of the values it decided was totally American and was totally going to uphold was being heterosexual. And so it introduced a new hiring policy that was specifically designed to prevent the employment of gays and, according to a company memo, also allowed for the firing of existing employees who failed to display "normal heterosexual values." At least nine people who lost their jobs claimed their sexuality was the reason for their dismissal. At that time only Massachusetts and Wisconsin specifically prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexuality, so there was little help for the workers. However, despite claiming the discrimination was a response to the "values and wishes" of its customer base, it didn't take Cracker Barrel long to notice the massive foot in its buck-toothed corporate mouth and the policy was ditched. So either Cracker Barrel misread its customer base or it realized that limiting your potential customers to those willing to verbalize the depth of their own ignorance wasn't the path to profits their shareholders would approve of.

A customer found 'special sauce' on her fries

Fries are pretty great, but you'd be unlikely to find anyone who eats them plain. Whether you like salt, ketchup, ranch, mayo, or vinegar, fries have to be eaten with something. Almost anything works … but not quite anything. Susan Mosher stopped at her local Cracker Barrel in Texas in 2011 for lunch with her husband, and she ordered a classic BLT with fries. Halfway through her meal, and after eating most of her sandwich and at least a few of her fries, she noticed some unexplained "seasoning" on her fries that was one part red, one part creepy, and zero parts ketchup. On closer examination the marks were found to be bloody fingerprints, and Mosher knew she hadn't cut herself. It was quickly established that one of the chefs had broken company protocol by continuing to work, handle food, and bleed instead of removing himself from the kitchen when he cut himself. Mosher is a cancer survivor, and despite her very understandable fear of contracting a blood-borne illness, Cracker Barrel offered her little more than an apology, a free meal, and two $50 gift cards for her trouble. But unless she handed the gift cards out for Halloween instead of candy, we're betting they never got used.

They were accused of race discrimination

Cracker Barrel prides itself on its old fashioned hospitality and traditional values, but according to a Department of Justice investigation concluded in 2004, there used to be plenty of old fashioned racism as well. During its investigation, the DOJ found evidence of a whole swath of discriminatory practices at 50 restaurants across seven states, with suggestions that managers were complicit. The behavior included segregating customers according to race, seating white groups before black groups, and making black customers wait longer for service that was often inferior. The Department of Justice issued a long list of improvements and changes that Cracker Barrel agreed to adopt, but that didn't stop the customers who were victims of the discrimination from suing the company. Cracker Barrel settled and agreed to pay the customers $8.7 million, and although the details of the settlement were not released and no admission of wrongdoing was made by Cracker Barrel, a payout of that size doesn't usually signal innocence.

They fired a veteran for giving food to the homeless

You'd think a company that's had as much bad press as Cracker Barrel would be grasping for all the good publicity it can find, and what's better for making a company look good than charity? Unfortunately, when 73-year-old Vietnam veteran and Cracker Barrel employee Joe Koblenzer decided to give away a corn muffin to a man who looked homeless, instead of cheering him on and pushing a positive headline, Cracker Barrel opted to fire him and wallow in the inevitable bad press that followed. And boy, did it follow. The justification was that it's against company policy to give away food and that this wasn't the first time Joe had done it. But when you weigh the cost of a corn muffin against the price of bad publicity, it doesn't take long to realize that whoever did the math was crackers, and the only place it would get the company was over the barrel.

They hid financial details from shareholders

Cracker Barrel is simultaneously a restaurant and an Old Country Store, which is code for "glorified gift shop." If you have a hard time defining that relationship, don't worry because so does Cracker Barrel. Although the two parts of the business have separate management and are internally referred to as separate entities, the earnings are reported as if it were a single company. For most people that's too darn boring to think about, but it's a major problem for one of the company's biggest shareholders. 

According to Sardar Biglari, CEO of Biglari Holdings, this structure is denying shareholders the information to judge the relative performance of each side of the business. This means the "Old Country Store" could be allowed to run at a huge loss with the difference being made up by the restaurant, or vice versa. No one would be any the wiser, and no one could advocate for change. Biglari is famous for buying into businesses he thinks aren't running at their best and shaking things up in the hopes of improving the operation and making a profit. Unfortunately Cracker Barrel stood firm and refused to release the information to the public. Of course, the harder they try, the more it seems like they have something to hide.

Employee gets fired for complaining about sexual harassment

Mention "homestyle cooking" to some people, and they'll be instantly lost in a sentimental reverie that involves warm hearths, grandmothers, and other butter-tinted fantasies. But for the rest of us it just means you eat what you're given and you don't complain. And at Cracker Barrel that latter version counts for the working conditions as well, at least according to former employee Bonnie Usher. In a complaint filed in 2003 with the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission and in a 2006 lawsuit, Usher alleged that while working for the company she was verbally abused, sexually assaulted, and subject to discrimination from coworkers and management on the basis of her gender and sexual orientation. So far so dreadful, and then it gets worse. When Usher was fired in 2004, instead of any of the normal reasons for losing a job, like poor timekeeping, stealing, or spitting in the food, she believes she was fired simply for complaining about the way she was being treated. Homestyle food, homestyle employment: you get what you're given, and if you complain about the bad taste in your mouth you go to bed without a job.

Halloween horror story comes to life at Cracker Barrel

Every Halloween countless parents across the country will all worry about the same thing: sharp stuff in the candy. But despite the efforts of fearmongers everywhere, very little evidence exists of people actually getting hurt this way on Halloween — unfortunately the same can't be said for Cracker Barrel. In 2007 Barrel of Crackers was forced to recall frozen burger patties from 313 restaurants after a 56-year-old customer, Irene Grann, cut her mouth on a piece of metal in her burger. After the woman was taken to the hospital bleeding from her mouth, the restaurant manager reportedly found a piece of razor blade sticking out of the patty, and investigators later found another buried deeper inside. Mrs. Grann and her husband were regular visitors to the restaurant, and surprisingly declared their intention to return soon as it was one of their favorite places to eat. Most people who get a mouthful of razor blades at their favorite restaurant would likely start to wonder if the "favorite" feeling was mutual.

They were ordered to pay former employees $2 million for race and sexual harassment

After forking out $8.7 million in 2004 to settle a race discrimination lawsuit, you'd think Cracker Barrel would have taken steps to avoid a repeat experience. But whatever they did wasn't enough because the discrimination lawsuit fairy decided to pay them another visit in 2006. This time the case was brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and involved 51 employees at three restaurants in the state of Illinois. The case revealed allegations of both racially charged language and discriminatory practices, as well as inappropriate touching and sexual comments directed at female coworkers. Cracker Barrel settled the case with a payment of $2 million to be shared among the employees. It was also prohibited from retaliating against those employees and agreed to provide extra training for the workers at the three Illinois restaurants in the hope of avoiding similar behavior in the future. Unfortunately, considering the company's track record in this area, the odds on that must be pretty long.

They were sued by Kraft

With a name like Cracker Barrel, you wouldn't expect there to be clones. But there are actually two Cracker Barrels in the food industry, and the restaurant wasn't the first one. That accolade actually goes to Kraft Foods and its Cracker Barrel brand of cheese, which has been sold in grocery stores since 1954. When the restaurant came on the scene 15 years later, Kraft didn't make a fuss because the two businesses were different enough that they didn't come into direct competition. But in 2012 the restaurant decided to market a line of branded foods for sale in stores, leading Cracker Barrel the Kraft cheese to sue. Kraft feared the two brands were so similar that if the restaurant somehow pissed off its customers (not an unfounded fear, as we've seen), those customers might avoid Kraft's products in the mistaken belief that they were the same. But the restaurant was keen to expand its brown and yellow empire in the name of profit and wasn't going to back off. At the end of 2013 an agreement was reached that satisfied both parties. In order to differentiate the brands on the grocery store shelves, Cracker Barrel (the restaurant) agreed to market its products under the revised brand name CB Old Country Store. Kraft didn't have to change anything because they got there first.

We'll probably never know why they fired Brad's wife

Social media is a strange place, and there's really no telling what's going to spark nationwide outrage. In 2017, Bradley Reid Byrd posted a simple question to Cracker Barrel's Facebook page: "Why did you fire my wife?"

Anyone who looked at any sort of social media in the weeks following the incident saw the posts, reposts, and memes about finding out the truth behind the firing of Brad's wife, which he says came out of the blue after she had been working there for 11 years as a retail manager. Byrd accused them of letting her go just before she was due vacation time, reports Heavy, and the incident inspired a hashtag and a Change.org petition that got 10,000 signatures of individuals who really, really wanted to know what happened.

Cracker Barrel never said, and according to Inc., they did exactly what they should have done: kept mum. They say that there's always a reason someone gets fired, and look at it this way — would you want the reason you lost your job to be plastered all over the internet for the world (and other potential employers) to see?

They refused to interview a deaf applicant

Cracker Barrel must have a crack legal team at their disposal, because they find themselves in hot water a lot. In August 2018, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the chain had violated some pretty major laws in 2016 when they refused to hire an applicant for a dishwashing position solely (the lawsuit claimed) because the person was deaf.

According to the EEOC, "the store manager was visibly uncomfortable interacting with the applicant", and that she ultimately refused to even interview the applicant. Instead, when he turned up to the scheduled interview, the store manager told him "she's not here," in reference to another manager who had been designated to conduct the interview. Three other applicants were hired as dishwashers, none of whom were deaf.

EEOC Regional Attorney Debra M. Lawrence said it best: "That is cruel and against federal law." District Jamie R. Williamson also added, "Hiring decisions should be made based on qualifications, not on fears about or prejudices against people with disabilities."

They were sued because of a George Jones album

The gift store is just as much a part of Cracker Barrel as the food, and in 2018, one item on the shelves was the subject of a $5 million lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery, says the Tennessean, and even if you don't know the name, you know his work. He co-wrote 73 songs with country music legend George Jones, and when Cracker Barrel and Concord Music Group decided to release a long-shelved, posthumous album, he had some serious issues with that.

According to Montgomery, Jones had wanted them to record the album together, with all the ownership rights and proceeds to go to him "as his retirement package for all his years of service and friendship." The album was finished, but it essentially got lost in decades of ever-changing record contracts. It ended up in Concord's possession after Jones's widow sold his assets, and Montgomery says neither of them actually had any claim to it. The Wrap says he even made it clear to Concord that he didn't want the album released by them… but it still showed up on Cracker Barrel's shelves.

They were sued over their parking arrangements

Anyone who has been to a few different Cracker Barrel locations has likely been to a restaurant with a serious problem: handicapped parking spaces that aren't regulation, and have problems like being too steep for wheelchair accessibility. That was the claim in the lawsuit filed against them in 2014, says Business Insider, and the plaintiff — Sarah Heinzl of the US Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team — won.

Heinzl took them to court after finding the parking spots were so steep that her wheelchair rolled away before she could get into it, and more problems came out in the trial. It was found that at least 107 locations in seven states had similar problems, and as part of the settlement, they all had to be fixed within 2.5 years of the verdict. Furthermore, orders were given to survey the remainder of the restaurant's locations, and Crack Barrel had to fix any other problems the surveys found within seven years.

Cracker Barrel's wrongful death lawsuit

In April 2012, a terrifying situation unfolded at an Ohio Cracker Barrel. According to Cleveland.com, Kevin and Katherina Allen were eating dinner with their daughters when Katherina told her husband that she was going to leave him. Kevin threatened their lives before he walked out, when Katherina immediately called a friend, and the police. She then appealed to the store's manager and asked permission to hide in the restaurant's walk-in coolers. The manager declined, saying: "We don't get involved in domestic disputes."

Kevin Allen returned to the restaurant with a shotgun and opened fire. His wife and one daughter were killed instantly, and his other daughter died from her injuries a month later (via Ohio.com). He was shot and killed by responding police officers.

Katherina's family later sued Cracker Barrel for declining to help, and, in spite of Cracker Barrel's arguments that they should "bear no responsibility for the 'unforeseeable,'" a judge ruled that the lawsuit could go forward (via Cleveland.com). Attorneys for the family argued that staff had more than enough information to realize the family was in serious danger, and that they could have prevented the tragedy.