State College recently added another southern styled food chain into their fold, Cracker Barrel. Over the years I have learned that Cracker Barrel has less to offer than I had once assumed. Firstly, it’s unsavory past of racial discrimination, anti-gay attitudes and sexual harassment takes the feel goodness out of their home-style comfort foods. Secondly, they have listed more and more vegetable menu items as being “made the old-fashioned way using meat seasonings.”
July 5, 2011
On a day where I was all psyched up to enjoy a salad and baked potato with my parents at our new Cracker Barrel, something possessed me to call ahead to see if there was anything more that I might be able to order. This is where the frustration began.
I thought instead of assuming what I knew I could eat, I would ask what they had available for vegetarians. My conversation was with Kelly of the State College Cracker Barrel and her reply was, “We have salads and vegetables.” Knowing that not all of the vegetables were safe choices was the first little red flag for me. I totally forgot that there was bacon on the one salad too but I went ahead and encouraged her to check on which vegetables were safe.
Kelly was gone for but a second and when she returned to speak to me she said, “Yeah, the green beans and the pinto beans have meat in them but everything else is okay.”
“What is everything else? Carrots?” I prompted.
“Yeah, carrots and apples and corn,” she was hesitant and fumbling, “All the other vegetables other than the beans.”
“You don’t sound certain, is there someone else who might know?” I was giving her an out, a way to comfortably admit she wasn’t sure.
Kelly countered, “No, I asked that that’s what I was told. Everything but the beans.”
“I am remembering that the Hashbrown Casserole has meat seasonings in it. Might you want to check on that?”
“Oh no! The Hashbrown Casserole is vegetarian, I am sure.”
“Yeah, everything but the beans is vegetarian.”
Bullshit. I looked up the menu online and saw it was still listed as meatful. In very fine print it states, “We want to make sure you know that some of our offerings, like turnip greens, green beans, corn muffins, hashbrown casserole and pinto beans, are made the old-fashioned way using meat seasonings and are not strictly vegetarian. Please ask your server about any particular dish if you have any questions.”
I called Cracker Barrel Guest Relations (1-800-333-9566) and decided to spin it in a way that gave Kelly credibility rather than to attack an employee. My call was answered with little professionalism and I had to ask the name of the representative. I spoke to Rachel and told her my first name. She never asked for any contact information from me and seeing as I hadn’t even visited to restaurant yet, I thought it wasn’t a big deal.
I excitedly yet skeptically asked Rachel if the new location in State College might have a new recipe that would allow vegetarians to finally enjoy their Hashbrown Casserole. She took time to look and read me the above statement and I told her what Kelly has insisted.
“Might the new store have a new recipe?”
“Oh my, I think perhaps the manager needs to be informed to tell Kelly that she is spreading false information. It really is wrong to insist that she knows and mislead a customer. If this were an allergy issue it could be dangerous”
“Yes ma’am. I will make sure the manager knows.”
“Thank you so much for hearing my concerns, Rachel.”
Upon visiting the new location it was exactly what you would expect, just like every other Cracker Barrel in the USA. We were seated within 10 minutes by a hesitant staff member during the bustling lunch crowd. He was kind enough to check for me what soups were available that day, “Vegetable/Vegetable Beef,” I was told.
I was intrigued and assumed that, unless the young man had a stutter or the soup was double named like Boutros Boutros Ghali, perhaps the Vegetable Soup was worth asking about. When Kyle came to take our order I asked him and he told me he thought the Vegetable Soup was vegetarian but he would go and check. “Good man,” I thought, “Don’t assume you know and don’t be afraid to ask.”
Enter our waiter Kyle who gave me the good news that the soup was indeed vegetarian, was going to be their regular second soup choice of the day and he was personally pleased because he claimed to be, “… a sort-of vegetarian too.” I ordered a bowl of the soup and a House Salad without the bacon, Kyle gave me an understanding smile and nod.
My parents’ food came before mine and was brought by a young woman who had very little table-side service etiquette. My mother’s 4 vegetable plate choices were served along with my father’s Sunrise Sample breakfast. The woman was left with a dish of Fried Apples. “Well who gets THESE?!” she asked in an accusing tone. We had no idea if they went with the breakfast or if she had brought out an extra dish.
Just as she was about to head back into the kitchen with the apples, Kyle came by and told her that they go with the breakfast. He also assured me that my order would be out soon, told the young woman that our table still needed a salad and a bowl of soup. She served my father the apples and turned to me, “You get a soup and house salad?”
“No bacon,” I replied. It’s not an herb you know.
At my insistence, my parents had started their meal by the time my food came. The steaming bowl of thick soup was packed with veggies but I dove into my salad to make sure there was no bacon. Kyle returned to refill my father’s coffee and check on us. Things seemed great.
I finally took a spoonful of hot soup but within the first bite I could tell there was ground beef. I set the meat to the side and looked, the ground beef which I had visually assumed was overcooked rice was what made the whole bowl so dense and thick. Kyle had just left so it was hard to flag him down but we got his attention pretty straight away.
I showed him what I had been served and he looked at it as though he didn’t understand. I assured him it was ground beef and suggested perhaps I was served the wrong soup. He rolled his eyes in a way that made it clear that he was a little exasperated with the kitchen, first my order was late, then inaccurate. He apologized and I, for maybe the 500th time in my life, was sorry for my parents to have to endure a scene I was making about my food during a meal. My reason for calling ahead to pave the way for an enjoyable lunch was all for naught.
Enter Victor, a man in a management red shirt but no name tag tailed by Kyle. The manager came offering apologies and a new bowl of soup. He explained that the soups had been mislabeled. At that point I asked his name and gave my own.
I thanked Victor for the bowl of a clearly different kind of thin broth vegetable soup and told him how I had tried to circumvent all of this lunchtime drama by calling earlier in the morning. I let him know how Kelly had insisted I accept her misinformation on what foods were vegetarian.
Victor pretty much brushed me off by telling me that he had already received an email about my concerns and phone call to Guest Relations and wanted me to know that he would be touching base later with Kelly. He also gave me the excuse that Kelly typically worked “out front” with the merchandise and was less informed about the menu. I thanked Victor for taking the time to talk to me and correct the soup mix up.
The soup and salad were good and I was actually a little excited that I would finally have a regular food option at this local Cracker Barrel. I love vegetable soup.
A little time gave me some perspective and I realized that I was unsettled about how Victor had not really heard my concerns. He was more focused on making excuses for Kelly than owning up to any wrong doing. If Kelly was more familiar with the merchandise that was even more reason she should have defered to someone else to answer my questions. He never offered to try to make things right other than swap the soups. He never heard my frustration of having jumped through hoops to get a meal. He never even offered to amend our bill or take off the price of the soup. That wasn’t what I was looking for but it would have at least been a gesture to recognize the frustration I had in trying to eat a vegetarian meal.
I asked my parents for the receipt and saw there was a customer survey. I called but it gave little satisfaction. The survey asked me to rate 2 things, my overall experience and the taste of the food. It then thanked me and gave me the Guest Relations number (1-800-333-9566) if I had any specific complaints.
For the third time that day, once in the morning I had been cut off before speaking to a live person, I called Cracker Barrel Guest Relations. My call was taken by Pam who identified herself without my asking and when I gave her my name and history in a short sentence or two (yes, I can be concise) asked for my phone number and address along with my last name.
Pam made me feel like she was really listening to my concerns. She understood my focus was more on the handling of information rather than mistakes made by a new store.
In trying to understand everything, she asked if I was a “type 1″ or “type 2″ vegetarian. I told her that I wasn’t sure what she meant but clarified that I do eat eggs and dairy products. She shared with me the list of safe foods for “vegetarian type 1″ (vegans) and “vegetarian type 2″ (lacto-ovo vegetarians).
I thanked Pam for taking some time to hear my concerns in a way Victor hadn’t. She was very surprised that he hadn’t tried to “make things right.” I told Pam that he did bring me the vegetarian Vegetable Soup and I was thrilled that the State College location was going to be having it regularly.
Pam went quiet for a beat or two then said, “Ma’am, it’s not on the list.”
“No, no,” I assured her, “This wasn’t the Vegetable Beef Soup, it was the VEGetable Soup.”
Please remember how much I LOVE VEGETABLE SOUP! Looking back I find it rather comic how much denial I was in. Pam and I actually went back and forth on this topic until I realized what she meant. She said, “Let me read the exact history on the ingredient concerns.”
It took her a while to read through things from the corporate headquarters that determined whether it was something that had soy products for those with soy allergies and concerns like that. Eventually she got to an entry about beef products in 2006 that confirmed it had “beef seasoning.”
I was floored. “Unbelievable!” I exclaimed, “Pam do not let my reaction reflect directly on you but I am in shock that I was served and ate 2 soups today, both which contained beef! This is unacceptable!”
She agreed and gave me the information that she would be making sure that local management as well as district management would be informed. She said that she would be mailing me a coupon for a complimentary meal for my trouble and a letter with the vegetarian safe foods lists on it. She also told me that I should expect a follow up call.
I thanked Pam and told her that I certainly did want to know how things were going to be handled. I made sure she knew my goal had not been to get a coupon but to make sure others wouldn’t be lied to or fed food that they didn’t want to eat. Pam agreed that guests’ vegetarian food concerns should be respected whether it’s for allergies, religious reasons or whatever.
July 6-11, 2011
After another phone call to Guest Relations clarify why I hadn’t heard anything to follow up my concerns, I was finally told that Cracker Barrel Guest Relations never promised that I would get a follow up call.
What I got on almost a week after the whole thing started, was a form letter. If you ask anything about vegan and vegetarian options from Cracker Barrel Guest Relations, the form letter you will get will look like this:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us here at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. We always appreciate hearing from our guests.
As I understand it, there are two types of vegetarians. Type 1 eats no dairy or egg while Type 2 eats dairy and eggs.
A Type 1 vegetarian could eat tossed salad, oatmeal, and baked potatoes. If margarine is not a problem, they also eat corn, carrots, and fried apples.
A Type 2 vegetarian could eat all of the above plus eggs, pancakes, French toast, grilled cheese, eggs in a basket, mashed potatoes, red skin potatoes, biscuits, sour dough bread, grits, and macaroni and cheese.
It should also be noted that all of our fried vegetables are fried in the same oil as our meat products. We want to make sure you know that some of our offerings, like turnip greens, green beans, corn muffins, hashbrown casserole, and pinto beans are made the old-fashioned way using meat seasonings and are not strictly vegetarian.
As a token of our appreciation, I am enclosing a complimentary meal card for you. We would like for you to be our guests on your next visit to the Cracker Barrel location of your choice.
We hope we have addressed your concerns and look forward to hearing from you and serving you soon.
That and a shiny golden coupon for a free meal was all I got. It didn’t address my concerns, it made it sound like I had made a general inquiry. I decided that although Pam had been kind, reflected my concerns and may have been forwarded, I had nothing to show that there was any action being taken.
My phone call that afternoon was received by Bobbie who easily looked up the history of my concerns by using my telephone number. She said that the district manager had been informed and he, in turn, had been in touch with the general managers. I told Bobbie that I would like a call from someone telling exactly what was being done to inform the State College Cracker Barrel staff so that misinformation would not be spread again. Bobbie told me that she would have the district manager call me. I had to ask her from whom I would be getting a call and she told me his name.
July 13, 2011
Enter Cracker Barrel District Manager, Brian Perry. Brian made his call to me from his cell phone while he was on vacation and apologized if I heard children making demands in the background. He felt my concerns deserved attention before he was back to work and even apologized for the delay.
Brian already knew the name of every employee who had handled things badly. I stressed to him that the content of the form letter I received would be better served in the hands of those employees.
I told him my concern was about the misinformation vegetarian customers were being fed (literally) and lack of Cracker Barrel management owning to any problems. He agreed on every count and shared what his plans were.
Brian recognized that he personally could not touch base with every employee but had made sure that every general manager was aware of the problem. He also had plans to follow up by giving a phone call or two asking vegetarian related questions after some time had passed.
Brian strongly encouraged me at least 3 times to give Cracker Barrel another try but I would not commit. I thanked him, expressing that I had received the token of the gilded coupon but was unsure if I would use it after all of the hassle.
In parting, Brian assured me that I would never have to worry about this issue in the future. H said it in a way that he was trying to guarantee it. The end of this call felt like a closure that I could live with; Brian understood the importance of making certain customers dietary concerns should be every employee’s priority and was taking steps to educate them.
Unbelievably and unfortunately this was not where it ended. My rant continues here in Part 2, Leaking through the Cracks of the Barrel.