Two weeks after my first being mislead and fed meatful soups at Cracker Barrel restaurant in State College, PA, my rant continues from part 1, There’s a Crack in the Barrel.
July 17, 2011
Four days after my conversation with Brian found me a little burnt out from the mid-July heat and the local arts festivals. Jim and I had plans to watch the Women’s World Cup final, USA vs Japan later in the day but we needed some real food before then. We decided to use our golden ticket (and list of safe foods) at Cracker Barrel.
Even after our 3 mile run we weren’t super hungry so were fine with any Sunday morning wait for seating. Just in case my name was a red flag for this store, we gave the name of Amy to the hostess so as to not scare any employees that we were there to make trouble. We really weren’t and just wanted a meal to see us through the game later.
It took 15 minutes to be seated, it was busy and just before noon. Neither of us saw Kelly nor Victor but I saw Kyle was working as waiter again. We were not seated at one of Kyle’s tables but had the fortune of meeting the young and fresh Julie.
I have thought about exactly why I did what I did next. At one point I thought that perhaps I did it on a whim but honestly, I wanted to see the positive outcome of all of my work to keep the staff informed.I asked Julie what soups were available and when she said one of them was Vegetable I asked her if it was Vegetarian.
Julie thought it was a vegetarian soup but volunteered to check to make sure as she put in our orders for iced tea. “Good girl,” I thought, “Don’t assume you know and don’t be afraid to ask.”
I had forgotten the list of safe foods but we knew the soup wouldn’t be an option. We both decided to order the 4 Vegetable Platter. I planned to order Carrots, Corn, Coleslaw (I now see is not on the list of safe foods! What the heck could be in it!?) and Mashed Potatoes. Jim planned on ordering Macaroni & Cheese, Apple Sauce, substitute his 3rd vegetable for a Baked Potato and substitute his 4th vegetable for a House Salad without bacon.
Just as we sorted out who would order what, Julie returned with our drinks and the news that the Vegetable Soup was vegetarian, “It has no meat in it,” she grinned.
I was so shocked at her declaration that I could hardly talk to place my order. I was grateful for having just gone over it and I stammered, “Ummmm, I think I will have the Vegetable platter instead,” and went on to place my order.
As I did my mind was reeling with questions,”Did Julie really ask about the soup? Whom did she ask? What is wrong with this place? Did Brian Perry not get through to these folks? Did he do anything at all?”
I was composed enough to know that Jim was wrapping up his order as I heard him say,”… and for my last vegetable I would like to substitute the House Salad, no bacon.”
I saw Julie writing Jim’s request and heard her repeat back, “…no bacon.” She took his choice of salad dressing down then was off to place the order.
The moment she left the table, Jim and I looked at each other in total amazement. Our jaws were hanging open and we looked around before we started frantically whispering to each other at the same time,”Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it! This is terrible! What is going on?! Unbelievable!”
We were still muttering and shaking our heads in disbelief when Jim’s House Salad was served by another young waitress. He reminded me that I wanted to photograph our food for this food blog and I got my camera out while warning, “Make sure there isn’t any bacon.”
When I looked up from my bag, camera in hand, Jim’s nose was practically touching his salad as he was looking (without his glasses on) at a tiny speck of something he was poking with a fork, “Is it bacon? I can’t tell.”
Neither of us could be sure so he gingerly used his fork to try to peep down below the top layer of veggies and cheese without messing the whole salad up for my photo. “Oh god,” I heard him say as he scraped aside the veggies to reveal a huge mound of bacon underneath!
I wasn’t going to send it back without getting a photo of it since my camera was in my hand. I snapped a shot as we nervously laughed at the strange horror of the whole situation. We saw Julie and were able to call her over to show her the salad and she picked it up to take back to the kitchen. “I put ‘no bacon’ into the computer,” she said with a sad sigh.
It was then I decided that Julie must have asked about the soup and hadn’t just told us on her own that it was vegetarian. “I know you did,” I used a tone to hopefully convey that I believed she did everything she possibly could have. The whole waitstaff seemed to be set up for failure.
In the brief span of time it took for all of our food to be served, Jim and I continued to share exasperated exclamations in hushed tones. We agreed that someone had to be told but I was unsure if I should speak to one of the busy managers or just wait and call the District Manager, Brian Perry, since he had left me his cell phone number.
I had lost my appetite for anything and just stared at the food. “Take a picture of it then,” Jim said in a good humored way. If I couldn’t eat it, I might as well photograph it.
It sure was a colorful bounty and I had to find a way to calm down and eat it. It was vegetarian after all, well maybe not the Coleslaw but I didn’t remember the list so that was my own stupidity. I started to poke at my food and not wait until it got cold. I started nibbling and my appetite slowly came back since there was nothing more to set me off. I gave a big sigh and just shook my head with the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
Enter Andy, a manager who saw me shaking my head. “How is everything?” he asked in a very pleasant tone. He towered above our table in a tan shirt that bared no name tag. Damn, I had to ask yet another Cracker Barrel employee their name.
He gave his name readily and as he saw my concern he kindly bent his knees to be on our level at the table, “Andy, I have to say things aren’t going all that well. Over the past week I have been trying to resolve issues of miscommunication regarding vegetarian options at Cracker Barrel and today I was again told that your Vegetable Soup was vegetarian. I know this soup is not because it…”
“…has meat seasonings,” Andy and I finished the statement together. He went from looking concerned to embarrassed to ghostly pale in the short time it took us to get to this point in our conversation.
I continued, “Our waitress was good enough to go and ask and she was told that there was no meat in the soup. I do not know who told her but I had been assured this would never happen again. I do want you to know that I will be contacting Brian Perry to update him on my experience.”
Andy didn’t have too much else to say. I think he mumbled that he understood. I am almost certain he apologized. He looked like a whipped dog as he started to retreat from the table so I made sure to tell him that I really appreciated that he stopped to check on us.
Julie came back to check on us at least once after we talked to Andy and it may have been soon after but so much happened during that meal I can’t remember if it was at this point we told her about the Vegetable Soup not being vegetarian or not. We told her we had known and that she did nothing wrong by telling us what she had been told. The sweet girl looked shocked and confused to be caught in the middle of all of this and I felt badly. I told her she was doing great, our meal was awesome but we wanted her to know (since no one else had yet shared the corrected information with her) so that no one else would be accidentally served the soup if they didn’t want to eat a meat product.
I wasn’t looking forward to having to open the whole issue up again to the district manager but at least it didn’t seem that we would encounter any other stumbling blocks during our meal.
I was wrong, our cast of characters for the day was not yet complete. Enter Dallas, a manager in a red shirt with her name embroidered over the right breast. She carefully approached our table with a look like she was attending a funeral. She quietly asked if we were the table that had asked about the soup being vegetarian and we told her that she was correct.
She hung her head, “I was the one that told the waitress that it was vegetarian. I never knew there was any meat seasoning in it. I am very sorry.”
I introduced myself, made sure that I was reading her name correctly without staring at her breast and told her that we very much appreciated her taking responsibility for spreading the misinformation. I told her that our current meal was delicious and it was very good of her to check in with us.
We did not finish everything but I find it odd that the one thing I insisted on eating the last of was the Coleslaw that is not on their vegetarian safe list (what is IN that stuff?!).
I had kept the golden fronted coupon in my purse until I was at the cash register itself. I didn’t even pull it out as I was in line and waiting to be directed to a register. A woman with dark hair pulled into a ponytail and a brown apron asked how our meal was.
I said, “There were some problems but we have already spoken to Andy and Dallas about them. Thank you.” She looked upset and shocked but composed herself and I chatted about the weather being hot until a register opened for us.
The young woman at the register asked how everything was and I told her pretty much the same thing about having some problems but already spoke to Andy and Dallas about them. Out came the coupon and she looked at it and said, “Thank you very much, it’s all taken care of.” Having already left a large tip for Julie, I turned to go.
Enter Karan. I hadn’t made it six steps, not more that 15 – 20′ away when I heard a woman’s voice loudly declaring, “I called it!” I turned to look back over my shoulder at the ruckus to see the woman in the pony tail take up the golden coupon from the cashier and wave it as she continued in a loud complaint, “I knew this was going to happen this morning. I just knew it!” I hustled out of there before someone decided to throw something at me.
July 18, 2011
I called and left a message for Brian Perry giving him the rundown of our latest experience at State College Cracker Barrel store #681. I know I used the phrase “unbelievably disturbing” and asked if, per chance he had not had the opportunity to implement his strategies. I also asked that if he had had the chance were his strategies ineffective. I told him that I was honest with the store managers that I would be contacting you. He returned my call within 20 minutes.
Brian was on the road, returning from his vacation. He took some time to retrieve a series of calls that had been forwarded from his corporate headquarters. Apparently the way they are forwarded, the person choosing which ones to forward can comment on the content. Whomever did so reminded Brian that the whole ingredient misinformation was a serious issue, especially with allergies.
He told me at least twice that he was very embarrassed and admitted before this had happened that he had talked to his General Managers and put his plans into action. He told me that the voice messages from the State College store contained a lot of excuses and owned up to the fact that his plans were obviously ineffective.
Brian did clarify that the woman in the red shirt, Dallas, was actually a Corporate Trainer. I asked him how long she had been at Cracker Barrel and he told me, “Twenty years.”
I could see that it is a problem from the top down. I asked what his plans might be and he said that he would get home in a day and back to work on Wednesday. At that time he realized he had to heighten disciplinary actions and felt that if the one manager had the same problem again (making excuses? misinformation?) that Brian would have to fire him.
He also planned to talk to his boss and try to get some different strategies. I encouraged him in this and felt it would be good to have a different point of view involved in something so frustrating.
As the conversation wrapped up, I discouraged him from sending along any coupons for free meals, “I really have lost my appetite for Cracker Barrel.” I did say that I realized it was a token and had appreciated the gesture.
Brian gushed, “If I could, I would have my General Managers bring you gift baskets to your door!”
He promised me a follow up call and I told him that I would understand that some time may pass until I heard from him again. He hesitated and said, “I don’t expect you to be understanding.”
I replied, “I really don’t understand it at all. My head is swimming with confusion and I find it all a quite strange.” I did thank him for calling.
July 19-24 , 2011
I returned home to a message on our answering machine from Regional Vice President Mike Hackney. He stated that he had a discussion with one of his District Managers and was hoping to speak to me about what he called my “experience” at State College Cracker Barrel. He wanted to talk to me about what he is doing “at his level” to address my concerns. He also expressed an interest in my feedback.
I left a message for him the following morning and the morning after that and we went back and forth over the next week leaving messages for each other.
July 25 , 2011
What I assumed to be the conclusion of all of this turns out to be rather anticlimactic and generally unsatisfying. I was hoping when I spoke to the Regional VP he would be at least as sympathetic or helpful as the District Manager. Mike Hackney was neither. From looking at his LinkedIn profile he has changed jobs, for whatever reason, every 2 years or so. I can’t say he had a good feel of Cracker Barrel brand from what it has grown from nor where it is heading.
I did give a list of concerns and had questions about what type of incentives employees were being given which seemed to make speed more important than accuracy. He told me that Cracker Barrel had no incentives for # served nor speed of getting customers in and out.
I also made what I felt were insightful references to their past 20 year and from what has been recently in print about their northerly trend. I impressed that moving into more diverse communities would continue to demand their awareness and pointed out the recent law suit a group of Hindus won against an Indian restaurant for selling meat samosas.
His responses were pretty non-committal on everything and he had no solid information on his company all together. On the issue of some managers not wearing name tags on their shirts nor identifying themselves I suggested that a name tag would be helpful to differentiate them from the other well dressed customers. “That’s not going to happen,” he told me flatly.
When I countered in surprise that it was odd being approached by someone who had no name tag nor logo identifying them as Cracker Barrel employees and expecting me to share with them a reply to, “How is everything?”
He recognized that they should have introduced themselves and, as he said about almost everything I suggested, “I will pass that information along.”
That was the response I got to my suggestion that their menu have each vegetarian menu item marked with something like a “V” to empower vegetarian customers and take the risk of misinformation being passed. I told him that when I see a problem, I prefer to have a suggestion to make things work better rather than just level complaints.
I asked what good was going to come of all of the energy I had put into a bad situation I hadn’t sought out. I asked how I might know something good has come of it. What it came down to was his telling me that it was very much appreciated that I brought the issue(s) to their attentions and I pretty much just had to have faith that they would be using it to improve the dining experience of any vegetarians who choose to eat at Cracker Barrel.
I concluded to him that I was dissatisfied and disappointed with those responses. I had nothing else to offer and made it clear that I couldn’t recommend Cracker Barrel to anyone who has any strict dietary concerns.
As a bit of a post script to this all, I called and asked what it was that made the Cole Slaw not safe for vegetarians (of type 1 OR type 2). It turns out that it was an oversight and should be on the safe for vegetarian type 2 list. What other oversights might there be?
I have always known choices at Cracker Barrel are limited but the selection of edible items seems to get smaller every year. My hopes in this rant isn’t to be shocked at Cracker Barrel but to show what going through the processes of demanding that vegetarians not be misinformed. There are those times, whether by choice or not, vegetarians will eat at Cracker Barrel. When they do it would be nice to know what we are eating.
I would appreciate it, if you agree with my idea of Cracker Barrel adding a printed “V” to their vegetarian safe selections, that you call their Guest Relations (1-800-333-9566).
I also welcome all questions and comments and would love to hear about others’ vegetarian experiences with Cracker Barrel.
To empower folks who have access to ingredients lists, this link at The Vegetarian Resource Group gives a listing of common food ingredients commonly found in many foods and beverages that indicates whether they are vegetarian, vegan, or non-vegetarian.
Here are some links to vegetarians who have related Cracker Barrel woes:
Taylor’s blog Mac & Cheese has a great Cracker Barrel post and is a really terrific veggie blog!
Veggie Boards shows that vegetarian troubles at Cracker Barrel are everywhere.