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The Magic of Giving

To quote an old English Wiccan, “Magic is the art of getting results.” For years we have been working hard through social media, visiting restaurants, word of mouth and through international – local organizations to encourage more vegan options in restaurants. The annual Pennsyltucky Veggie Awards were easy to share because there were so few choices. Each of those special veggie options needed to be celebrated and as years went on there were more and more.2015-10-15 12.20.40

Fast forward a few years and we honestly can not keep up with all of the vegan options in Central PA! We still travel, are vegan and love to eat but just cannot get to every place in our region that has great veggie food within the year. We hope it is the energy we have given to encourage and educate that has paid off. Good magic we will call it.

With that, let us pass along a local restaurant that is worth mentioning in St. Mary’s, PA, New Horizons Healthy Foods. Back in October, when we thought we would still be able to judge every veggie burger in central PA, we stopped in and enjoyed a vegan Bacon Cheeseburger that was divine. It was a huge quinoa patty topped with lettuces, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, vegainaise, a dairy free cheese and coconut bacon and was served on a house made raw carrot bread. This is just a sample of all the amazing foods we have eaten this past year in our region!2015-10-19 16.31.50

Because New Horizons Healthy Foods is also a store, I wanted to make sure to purchase some of the coconut bacon. It was delicious and I hadn’t bought any in quite a while. I was shocked to find that it too was made in house.

Here is the best thing of all, they shared the recipe! So from New Horizons Healthy Foods to us to you. Happy vegan eating in central PA and everywhere. When you give, sometimes you magically get back in return!2015-11-06 13.18.45

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(NOT) Bacon Rating

(NOT) Bacon Rating

This post has about as much to do with 6° of Kevin Bacon as my blog name is about Herwig’s tag line claiming, “Where Bacon is an Herb.” They may sound similar but the thoughts originated from different places.

My (NOT) Bacon Rating is a review of three different kinds of vegetarian bacon products, Lightlife Smart Bacon, Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon, and MorningStar Farms® Veggie Bacon Strips.

As with the ground meatless taste test, we chose the 3 different brands and tested them as A, B & C in the order that they are listed above. They are in that order, left to right in each photograph too. Upon visual comparison, I noted that A looked like slabs of lunch meat, B looked like long thin strips of tempeh and C looked like play dough-like strips.

I read the directions for cooking, A and B required at least some oil in a pan but C did not. I cooked them all together with a light spray of oil and set them onto a paper towel afterward to absorb any excess. A and B both absorbed the oil into themselves but C created its own when heated and was the only one that seemed to have a little excess when taken out of the pan.

I noted how their appearance changed after cooking. A browned up a little, B did brown and C changed differently depending on the part white or the reddish part of the strip but over all browned very nicely.

I broke off 4 pieces of all of the strips to be tasted by themselves and noted the textures when I broke them. The first, A, was not really crisp and kind of tough to break its leather-like texture, B was crumbly and a little tender with nothing crisp about it, the variegated colored and textured C was a mix of soft and crisp.

Taste Test
Knowing that Mom isn’t a fan of C, MorningStar Farms® Veggie Bacon Strips, I had 7 taste testers for A, Lightlife Smart Bacon and B, Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon and 4 of us tasted all three products.

A, Lightlife Smart Bacon

On its own most of us agreed that the flavor was slow to come. Amy said it didn’t have much taste, I thought it was tough to chew, Arron thought it was chewy, Jim said he wasn’t tasting much more than salt. Of the 3 taste testers who only tasted this and B, it was Dad’s choice but not Mom nor Tracy. Tracy actually spit it out and looked at me like I was feeding her shoe leather.

The four of us who tasted all of the products also tested them in vegetarian BLTs. This, in my honest opinion, is the acid test for a soy bacon product. In the BLT test, A got about the same kind of reaction as it did on its own. Jim shared he got the “crunch” but no “bacon.” Amy said, “It’s a pretty good LT with a piece of leather.” I agreed that I tasted the lettuce and tomato but no bacon and it was tough. Arron asked, “Can I eat C now?”

B, Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon

My initial reaction to eating this cooked product by itself that it was nice and smoky. Amy thought it was flavorful but not like bacon. Arron said, “That’s tempeh” and Jim thought it didn’t have a good texture for a soy bacon. Jim also pointed out that it tasted a lot like barbeque potato chips. From those who only tasted A & B on their own that day, this was Mom’s favorite. Dad took forever trying to chew it up and he didn’t say much and, although she didn’t spit this one out, Tracy asked, “Why didn’t you bring any of the good stuff?” She was referring to MorningStar strips.

Those of us who also tasted this product in the BLT test really liked the flavor and how it filled out the sandwiches. Sadly, none of us would have called it a BLT. Amy thought it was nice, just not like bacon. Jim said it was a nice smoked tempeh sandwich and I agreed it had a nice flavor. Arron said, “Just don’t call it bacon.”

C, MorningStar Farms® Veggie Bacon Strips

This was the product we were all most familiar with. Jim felt it visually represented bacon better than the other 2 products. Amy felt it was over all more like bacon. Arron said, “I know this one!” I felt that, compared to the 2 others tested, that the taste, texture and look (even with the play dough marbling) was more like bacon. Mom, Dad and Tracy didn’t try this one but I want to mention that it is the product Tracy chose to use in the broccoli salad that very day.

The BLT taste testers were well pleased with this product. I said, “That’s a BLT,” and everyone agreed. Jim liked the texture and the nice crisp bacon-like flavor. Arron said it was “still the best.” I also liked how the product, upon cooking, gave different textures to bite into because of the marbled ingredients. Amy summed up what we all felt about this product in a BLT, “Mmmmmmm.”

Nutritional Values

It is a little difficult comparing these three products nutritionally. Each of their serving sizes are completely different, each chose to use a different number of strips per serving thus the grams per serving are vastly different.

The size of each strip differs from product to product but I felt that was the best way to compare. I broke down the information (on right) per strip. You can see that the strips of B are twice the size so although at a glance they look to be packed with protein and high in sodium, not the case when you break it out gram per gram. The only thing the tempeh style product is highest in, understandably, is Carbohydrates. B also ends up being lowest in fat but do remember that it and the lower fat product A both recommend oil for cooking – they sucked it up like wicks.

It comes down to what is important to you. If you have reason to use a vegetarian bacon product that has less carbs/fat or are looking for the highest protein per strip, you can do the math. If you are looking for a product that has the flavor and texture of bacon, try to remember that real bacon is no health food and take our recommendation and fry up some MorningStar Farms® Veggie Bacon Strips!

I am always hoping that by tasting new product I will find a new favorite. In both the ground meatless and soy bacon taste tests I have found that the product already regularly use is the one that is still tops. Thanks to my family for tasting and commenting; this was SO much fun! Whatever shall we try next? Requests?

Winner in the soy bacon taste test!

For the follow up to this taste test that pits bacon tempeh to tempeh, check out the Tempeh Bacon Taste Taste. Will the Maple Kind prevail!?

Want to read about more vegetarian food reviews and taste tests!? Check out my detailed review of vegetarian ground meat substitutes: The Ground Meat(less) to Beat! See which product stood up to the Spaghetti Sauce test and which one aced being tasted on its own!

Leaking through the Cracks of the Barrel (rant part 2)

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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.

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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.”

Jim's first House Salad on July 17th.

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.

Our meal on July 17th. Although Coleslaw isn't on their safe list (my bad, not theirs), this was our real vegetarian meal.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

There’s a Crack in the Barrel (rant part 1)

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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.”

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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.”

“Really!?”

“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.”

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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?”

“No ma’am.”

“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.”

Hmmmmmmm.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Unbelievably and unfortunately this was not where it ended. My rant continues here in Part 2, Leaking through the Cracks of the Barrel.

Vegetarians that eat…

Posted on

fish, chicken… BACON!!?

I am a vegetarian and although I strive to cut out more and more animal products and eat vegan at home it never has completely worked. If someone wants to argue the finer points of rennet in the cheese products I eat and the fact that I step on bugs and worms when I go running, I will concede to them. I am, however, a vegetarian; I do not knowingly eat animals. I will even waste food and throw it away, or set it out for other animals to eat, if someone tells me there is animal parts in it.

There are certain places and people I do not expect to understand vegetarianism. I am patient with many restaurants even though in this time in main stream USA vegetarianism should be understood by the food service industry. When making new acquaintances I have no problem in describing just what I will and won’t eat because the many people’s dietary choices are for different reasons. Health, religion and personal ethics can all muddy what is considered meat. The pork industry still describes itself as “the other white meat®” to try to blur the lines between what is real meat and what is not.

Take the observance of Lent as an example. One Lenten requirement is that all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent. Abstinence, in this context, forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat. This chosen “abstinence” does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use lard and even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning. These Lenten ideas on abstaining from eating meat are about as clear as the warm bacon dressing it is served up with.

A place I would expect to have a clear understanding of vegetarianism would be in a health food store. Our local store, Nature’s Pantry, had a day where vendors came in to share samples and information about their products. They were very aggressive when it came to encouraging customers to try their products and even more so in bombarding us with their information. We avoided most of their tables after sampling a terrible cup of chicory coffee that was just as overpowering and obnoxious as the vendor was. We stood in line to pay for our regular purchases and had to walk by one last snake oil salesman. Actually she was pushing products with fish oil in them and was touting them as vegetarian. She demanded our attention as we stood in line and I cringed from her product and said, “No thank you, I am a vegetarian.” This opened up the flood gates of her argument that there are all kinds of vegetarians and even some that ate fish. I now know they are actually called pescetarians, thanks to my post-argument research, but at the time all I could do was look nauseated and tell her that I don’t eat ANY animals. She must have earlier over-dosed on her neighbor’s chicory coffee because she would not shut up nor take any visual clues that we did not want to be involved in her argument on what vegetarians actually ate and what each of them are called. Jim pretty much ended the conversation by saying, “Yes, and I am sure there are vegetarians who eat cows and call themselves ‘Bovine-vegetarians’ but we do not.”

Bless the vegan blogger Quarrygirl for recently calling out a popular vegan magazine, VegNews, for being so ridiculous as to using Photoshop on iStock photographs of meat entreés and trying to pass them of as vegan meals! Check out her original post, RANT: VegNews is putting the MEAT into vegan issues, and the New York Times coverage of this backlash, Vegan Promoter Uses Photos of Meat and Dairy Items, and Fury Follows.

My personal rant started to come to a head over the past day when, for the second time, I was served chicken at My Thai. The first time was in December for my pre-race pad thai when I ordered tofu as my protein choice. The older woman waitress had the audacity to argue with me that I had ordered chicken. It has taken me over 4 months to relent to Jim’s, “How about My Thai for supper?” suggestion/requests for me to set foot into the restaurant again. We had purchased takeout for guests a couple of times but yesterday was my first sit down visit, the first time I didn’t wait in the car.

The same matron waited upon us and we clearly stated our curry and veg/tofu choices. Jim ordered Red Curry with tofu and I ordered Masaman Curry with vegetables. We listened carefully as she repeated our orders back to us but upon it’s arrival mine looked distinctly like chicken and I questioned it even before she had removed her hand from setting the steaming bowl in front of me. She looked carefully at it and although I bristled and was ready to have it out with her she apologized that it was an order for another table and whisked it away before the folks who had ordered it noticed me looking at it in disgust. She apologized again when bringing our correct bowls but I just couldn’t bring myself to being sympathetic toward her.

In typical true indigo fashion, to try to bring something positive out of all of this frustration, I decided to take some photos of an artichoke dish I am making for lunch. It’s not iStock photography so the surroundings have that look that shows I love and use my kitchen a lot.

Although I didn’t photograph the use of it, I am really pleased with how well my melon baller works for taking the choke out before steaming the artichoke for about 25 minutes. I rinsed it in cold water to stop the cooking process and drained it well before topping it with a nice drizzle of sauted garlic and lime juice then topped it with feta cheese. I popped it under the broiler for a quick melt and served it up with some left over risotto.

Other than the melon baller, I am pleased to feature some of my other little gadgets used today. The super fast garlic mincer (with wheels and blades!!) and the metal bar of soap for washing onion and garlic scent off my hands. Both were given to us by the ever-savvy, lusciously-geeky, gadget-oriented Lukens-Chens. Although not a gadget, I love the usage of foil on my baking trays for broiling. It might seem a wasteful use of foil but clean up is less of a headache and I cram the used foil into a cat food can when I take out the recycling.

Mine is not professional quality nor vegan photography but definitely shines with my love of creating vegetarian meals. For some awesomely scrumptious vegan food photos, visit the vegan selections at Food Gawker.

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