XXXII – As The Cracker Crumbles

Back in August, I published chapter 5 of my blog, titled “Restaurant Wars”. I originally intended it to talk about working in a restaurant, and it kind of did; however, I went off on a tangent and never really got to the point I think I was trying to make. In this post, I’m going to focus specifically on the place I work, Cracker Barrel. Even more specifically, the individual store where I work, as this is the one I have my experience at.

If you’ve been anywhere east of the Mississippi River, you’ve undoubtedly seen a Cracker Barrel restaurant. You may have even eaten at one. The company is expanding westward, having recently opened in Oregon and California. In fact, only five states to not have a Cracker Barrel store (being Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming). Now in its 50th year, Cracker Barrel maintains the same basic menu in all of its restaurants, with a few regional variations. Walking into “the Barrel” you first see the retail shop, full of trinkets and other things for sale. Trudging through the maze of retail, you reach the host podium, where someone takes you to your seat, menu in hand. You think you’ve entered a time warp, seeing all sorts of antiques lining the walls.

Now, enough of the plug. It takes many people to make the wheel called Cracker Barrel turn. You have the retail store staff in front, and the servers, obviously. In the back, you have the dishwashers (not the most glamorous position, but one of the most necessary) and cooks. Now there are three kinds of cooks: the backup cook, the prep cook and the grill cook.

The prep cook is tasked with the preparation of cold items, like fruits and salad vegetables; slicing meats, like the roast beef and turkey (used on salads and Thursday specials); fruit toppings for pancakes/French toast; among many other things.

The backup cook does the hot prep, like vegetables for immediate service; grits and gravies; soups; dessert baking (pies, apple dumplings, cobblers); bread baking (cornbread and biscuits); and so on. They have lists of items that must be done for that shift, so that hopefully an adequate supply of food is made for sales, but also to not sacrifice food quality.

Then there’s the grill cook. That’s what I mainly do, even though I can work in any back-of-house position. The grill cook does the actual cooking of meats, fish, pancakes, etc. Though we don’t garnish the plates, we also plate the food, in a hopefully pleasing-looking manner. Granted, the plates don’t usually look as nice as in the pictures (but then, is there anywhere that the actual product looks like the picture?), especially when it’s busy and we’re trying to get the food out as quickly as possible.

Now, I’m going to be brutally honest. Everyone is supposed to be on the same team. Sometimes, though, it feels like it’s cooks vs. servers. There are times when the cooks are yelling at the servers (oh, I’ve done my fair share of that!) for seemingly petty things, but there are also times when it’s justified. Cooks get incensed when food is returned for one reason or another. Many times, it’s because of a customer’s screw-up; sometimes it’s the server who screwed up. Other times, the cook fucked up. However, there’s still tension. No matter whose fault it was, the cook has to suck it up and make it perfect. I’ve heard the rationale of “it’s just food”, but that doesn’t improve the fact that food and time was wasted in having to recook something because of whatever reason. For me personally, whenever something gets sent back, I take it as someone telling me I don’t know how to do my job, and that I’m obviously stupid. I try my damnedest to make something a person is happy with. When it’s wrong, I obviously did something wrong, so I must not know what I’m doing. That’s my thought process.

Now, like I said, the cooks make a lot of mistakes. When a table’s ticket prints, there’s a lot on that ticket. On some food items, the code used for one thing is one letter off from something else, or one thing looks really similar to others. For some of the vegetable sides, we look at a ticket and think we see one thing, when it’s really something else. Misreadings like that happen, and sometimes we catch them, sometimes not.

There are tensions in the kitchen, but that’s the exception more than the rule—normally everyone gets along. Sure, everyone has their differences, but most of the time, everyone gets along decently. Of course, some people are more liked than others—that goes for all positions in the kitchen. Some have better work ethics than others, some have better attitudes than others. Some work really hard, others do the bare minimum to get by. I’m not calling anyone out, I’m just making general observations. Some of my coworkers read my blog, and they’ll try to say that I’m referring to so-and-so or this person or that one. I have my opinions about who does a great job, and who doesn’t do as well. There are some servers I don’t care about, and others I enjoy working with, even though I can get along with just about everyone. On the other hand, there are people who enjoy working with me, and I know for a fact that there are some who hate working with me. So be it. I’m not going to be able to make everyone happy. Like me or not, I’m there for the time being, and don’t intend to go away anytime soon.

One more thing about Cracker Barrel. While you’re sitting in the dining room or retail shop, you’ll hear country music playing. Modern to classic, it’s all country. In the kitchen, we listen to local radio, at least where I work we do. Occasionally the manager will put a country station on, but most of the time, it’s something else. There’s a little bit of a struggle as to which station is played. Most of the kitchen staff like classic rock. Others like modern pop. I admit, some of the modern pop music wouldn’t be so bad, except the one station that’s put on which goes by the tagline “today’s hit music”, plays the same playlist on a daily basis, repeating the same songs on roughly an hourly basis (thus receiving the nickname “today’s shit music” by some of us). I kid you not, in one shift, I heard Ariana Grande’s song Breathin’ at least seven times. If the radio would just vary the playlist a little, and not repeat the same goddamned song so many fucking times, it wouldn’t be so bad.

I’ve held many jobs in the last 25 years. Cracker Barrel is probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most. I like working with just about everyone, and, despite the stressful times, it’s worth the hours I put in. Next time you go to Cracker Barrel, enjoy the southern-style food and friendly hospitality. Above all, in every aspect of life, be safe and be well.

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