Where do chain restaurants get all the faux antiques for their decor? I have this disturbing vision of 12-year-olds in Thailand manufacturing farm implements and Nehi soda signs for Cracker Barrel and the like.
You may imagine I spend my time supping on sushi with Vaclav Havel and what all, but the truth is I have sat in Cracker Barrels on occasion and wondered about this very thing. (Cracker Barrel, for the benefit of those of you who've never left the west coast or driven on an interstate, is a restaurant chain that employs "old country store" decor. I know the question was about chain restaurants in general, but one must focus one's investigative resources.)
So I called the company's headquarters in Lebanon, Tennessee, and quizzed the folks there about the stuff hanging on their restaurants' walls: Is it legit? Where does it come from? Then I thought about it a bit, called them back, and quizzed them some more. Some may say this is a trivial matter to get so persnickety about, but my feeling is, that's probably the same thing they said over at Arthur Andersen.
I spoke with Cracker Barrel decor manager Larry Singleton, whose parents, the owners of a Lebanon antique shop, furnished the first Cracker Barrel in 1969. Cracker Barrel cofounder Dan Evins was so pleased with their work that he hired them to furnish all his subsequent restaurants. As a child Larry accompanied his parents on antique-buying trips; he started working at the decor warehouse in 1980, and took over as manager in 1981. Cracker Barrel was still a relatively small operation then, with around 30 outlets, but it has since embarked on an aggressive expansion program. As of the day I called, CBRL Group, Inc., owned 461 outlets in 41 states. Since each restaurant has roughly 1,000 items on its walls, the company has clearly amassed one prodigious heap of Americana--part of Larry's task has been to put antiques acquisition on an industrial basis. Today the decor warehouse is a 26,000-square-foot facility with a staff of 11 and over 100,000 bar-coded items in inventory. Larry no longer needs to do much antiques hunting himself; a nationwide network of dealers knows what he wants and keeps him supplied. (Signs, kitchen tools, and farm implements are always big, but anything relatively old and picturesque that'll fit through the door has potential--shoe trees and bicycles, for example.) Items receive minimal restoration: cleaning, staining if necessary, and usually a coat of clear finish. For each new location, a design team arranges a load of rustic-looking stuff on mock store walls in the warehouse, a task greatly simplified by the fact that the layout of every Cracker Barrel is pretty much the same. Then they photograph the results, pack all the items on pallets, and ship them to the site.
Fascinating, you say. But let's get to the heart of the matter. Is all the stuff for real? I put the question to Larry Singleton thusly: "To the best of your knowledge, is every item hung on the walls in a Cracker Barrel restaurant authentic, that is, not a reproduction?"
"Yes," said Larry.
"Is any item of recent manufacture, meaning within the last ten years?"
"No," said Larry.
Of course, in this sinful age, one never knows. Cracker Barrel offered to let me tour the warehouse, but since I've blown the Straight Dope travel budget on 40-weight for the Studebaker I wasn't able to visit Lebanon to take depositions or do carbon dating. The Cracker Barrel people sounded honest on the phone, but the guys from the brokerage houses who call trying to sell you the latest IPO sound honest...actually, no they don't. They sound like thieving hyenas. The Cracker Barrel people sound way better than that. So what can I tell you? That's their story, and they're sticking to it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.