Charging Electric Cars at the Cracker Barrel

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OVER THE BARREL: The billboards lead here, and to EV charging. (Photo courtesy of Cracker Barrel).

You’re on the highway, and your stomach is starting to rumble. You see the familiar orange sign — a Cracker Barrel! The turn signals are on before you even think about it. Now chances are that the name Cracker Barrel conjures up a number of images — a cinnamon French toast breakfast with eggs on the side; a Hickory Smoked Barbecue Country Dinner; Mandy Barnett singing “White Christmas,” signature rocking chairs. But electric cars? Probably not.

Nevertheless, Cracker Barrel is taking a plunge into the unknown with 24 electric charging stations (half of them with ultra-fast 480-volt DC) in a Tennessee triangle that includes Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. The idea is to “keep the Cracker Barrel brand relevant to changing times.” And how. Grandma’s Oldsmobile can’t fuel up at these electric vehicle pumps, but the Nissan Leaf (to be built in Tennessee) can.

Cracker Barrel is partnering with ECOtality and the federally sponsored EV Project, which is following Nissan Leaf rollout markets. Hence the focus on Tennessee when Cracker Barrel, which has 597 outlets, could have put the ECOtality Blink stations anywhere.

“We don’t know yet how many chargers there will be per store,” said Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen, a spokeswoman for ECOtality. She added that Leaf deliveries to Tennessee start this week.

I had an amiable chat with Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Julia Davis, and together we noticed that the map of EV locations describes a rough circle between the three cities. You could drive a Leaf along the whole route, which is something like 425 miles, stopping for refreshments and a charge along the way. “Let’s do it!” I said, sensing a kindred spirit. Davis is willing, so as soon as the Cracker Barrel Electric Highway is in place (next summer sometime), we have a date to run the route in a Leaf (or other fine electric car that the manufacturer lets us borrow).

There is some irony here. According to Davis and company folklore, founder Danny Evins (a Shell Oil jobber) was on the highway headed for the zoo in Atlanta back in 1969 when lightning struck. Evins (who had just retired) had been looking for ways to sell more gasoline, and he realized that a restaurant/gas station with honest prices and good food that treated traveling families well would probably get their business again on the return trip.

A chain was born, though the gas pumps disappeared around the time of the Arab oil embargo. Another irony there, considering that the chain will be servicing cars for the first time in 38 years, though this time with electricity. Electric vehicle charging is "consistent with the company's roots," said CEO Michael Woodhouse. The guests get some value added with the country cookin'.

It’s all strategic, you see. Davis pointed out that it takes 30 to 40 minutes, on a good day with no line, to get in and eat a Country Dinner. And while you’re filling up, so will the car — that’s the same amount of time for a fast charge at 480 volts. “We had a lot of discussion about that,” Davis said. They’re even talking about having EV-related accessories in the famous Cracker Barrel gift shop.

Most Cracker Barrel restaurants are along interstates (100 are on state highways), so this is a chain that caters to the American on the move. It will be a while before many of those road scholars will be traveling in electric vehicles, but if the trend has reached Cracker Barrel, it’s catching on for real. A great big plate of Smoked Country Sausage n’ Biscuits with Steak Fries plus 480 volts of good ‘ol American electricity — that’s a winning combination.

This post wouldn't be complete without a video reading of "I'm a Cracker Barrel Connoisseur" by Erin Hay: