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Country cooking to arrive on city's menu

A Cracker Barrel will land at 54th Avenue N off Interstate 275 this year if all goes according to company plans.

By SHARON L. BOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- In this city, where luxury condominiums, hip restaurants, upscale retailers and deluxe theaters have come to define progress, Cracker Barrel is ready to move in.

Yes, Cracker Barrel, the home-style restaurant/faux country store, found at interstate exits in 40 states. Plans call for St. Petersburg to get one this year at Interstate 275 and 54th Avenue N.

Patrons love the stadium seating in the new theater and the martinis at Dan Marino's Town Tavern, both in the new BayWalk complex. If St. Petersburg's Cracker Barrel is anything like the others, it also will be packed with people ready for buttermilk biscuits, country fried steak and perhaps a patchwork stuffed rooster from the gift shop.

"I think Cracker Barrel will do as well as anything downtown," said William H. Howell, who is developing the restaurant site.

The restaurants are commonly found along interstate exchanges in smaller and midsize towns. Since all the new downtown development has given St. Petersburg a more cosmopolitan image, does the arrival of Cracker Barrel raise even a tiny fear that it will restore some of the city's backwoods, backwater reputation?

"We're happy to have it there," said Mayor David Fischer. "They are very popular. They are even hard to get in."

"I was amazed at the competition in different areas trying to get a Cracker Barrel to move there," said developer Howell. He wants to put a hotel on the site and said Cracker Barrel is a good draw for inns.

A Cracker Barrel at the 54th Avenue N exit off I-275 would be the first in Pinellas County.

The company is based in Lebanon, Tenn., and has 436 stores. Its corporate mission is "to please people. Nothing more. Nothing less."

That explains why the company is reluctant to talk about its St. Petersburg location, even though it has applied for a building permit.

"That clearly shows we are substantially interested," said Julie Davis, corporate communication director for Cracker Barrel, commenting on the building permit. Still she hedged.

"Please keep in mind that something still could go wrong. Until we break ground, something could happen," Davis said.

Why all the caution? People hear that a Cracker Barrel is coming and get excited, Davis said. The company doesn't like to disappoint anyone.

Cracker Barrel "anticipates starting construction in April," she said. It will take about five months to complete the combination restaurant/gift shop.

Davis would not reveal the cost of the project, except to say it is a substantial commitment to the community. The building permit shows a construction value of $850,000 for a building of 11,393 square feet, including a 1,407-square-foot covered porch.

The restaurant/shop will need 120 workers, many of whom will be hired locally, Davis said.

Company founder Dan Evins opened the first Cracker Barrel in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., after years of traveling what was then a new interstate system. According to company history, he found that small hometown restaurants in many places were being edged out by fast-food restaurants. He wanted to create a replica of what he remembered as a comfortable place: a country store that served home-style cooking.

Travelers know Cracker Barrels as places to get huge meals of country cooking at decent prices, meals that will last on a long drive. Breakfast is served all day long in keeping with farm tradition that breakfast is the day's most important meal and one that should include biscuits, some sort of meat, eggs, grits, gravy and maybe even pancakes.

The store part of a Cracker Barrel is filled with replicas of all sorts of items that might have been found in a country store 50 years ago. It is heavily stocked and kitschy. There are games to be played while riding in the car, T-shirts, old-fashioned candy, homemade jellies, any sort of craft item imaginable, all sorts of tourist gewgaws and even a Country Charm Barbie.

In keeping with modern travel amenities, Cracker Barrel has an inexpensive purchase/lending program of books on tape.

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