When you browse through the store end of Cracker Barrel's Jasper location, you are now going through the best Cracker Barrel store in the entire national chain.
Employees at Store 712 over the past couple of weeks have worn T-shirts that proclaimed the store had been voted the Retail Store of the Year.
"They pick one retail and one restaurant," said Mark Gajdosik, the store's general manager. "Our retail store was No. 1 in the entire company last fiscal year (2018)."
According to a recent release on the company's website, "Established in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., Cracker Barrel and its affiliates operate 659 company-owned Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations in 45 states." Gajdosik said the company headquarters is still in Labanon.
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, the Jasper location of Cracker Barrel (crackerbarrel.com), which was opened nearly five years ago, was closed down at 6 p.m., and at 7 p.m. supper was catered by Jim N' Nicks in Jasper.
"The entire staff and their families were invited," Gajdosik said. "The president of the company, Sandra B. Cochran, came. Our senior vice president of operations, Nick Flanagan, was here. We had the senior vice president of retail (Laura Daily). Basically every type of executive in the company came down and visited Jasper. They flew right into the Jasper airport here. They came and celebrated with us. We probably had close to 250 employees and family members here."
To have all the employees and their families show up impressed him, noting he didn't feel he would see that response in other stores.
"That shows you the employees care," he said. "Our mission at Cracker Barrel is pleasing people. That goes from our employees to the guest. Without happy employees, we're not going to have happy guests. It's important. That's what we live by."
The criteria to judge the retail stores includes sales, and traffic growth over the year, he said, as well as how many restaurant guests then purchase from the retail store. "That's a big thing, because they want to see if they are eating or are they shopping in the store as well," he said.
Every couple of weeks, new things are set to be featured, and so the company also looks at who hit goals for features and benefits the most, as well as different sales goals throughout the year. They also look at theft and loss of products compared to annual inventory.
Gajdosik noted the store's retail manager last year, Amy Cagle, was promoted to district manager in Memphis, Tenn., overseeing about a dozen stores. A new manager, Brittany Campbell of Jasper, has been named for the Jasper retail store, after commuting for a couple of years to serve as the retail manager at the Tupelo, Mississippi, Cracker Barrel.
Campbell, who has been manager for a week and a half, said her husband, Andrew Campbell, is worship pastor at Jasper First Church of the Nazarene. The couple has a son, Canon, who turned 1 on Tuesday.
"The employees make this team the best it can be," she said. "We're just here to administrate it, I feel like. It's nice coming in to such a good store."
When asked about the most fun thing about the store, Gajdosik pointed to the smell when one walks in the door.
"It reminds you of the nostalgic country store. I remember as a kid — I am from a very small town in Wisconsin. We had a general store," he said. "We don't have a lot of places like this anymore. Those type of stores are neat."
Asked about the success of the store, Gajdosik said, "That's easy. The staff. The staff is amazing. They are very friendly. Most of them are local, right here from Jasper. The one thing I've learned is that the happier the staff is, the happier the guests are. We couldn't do without the staff."
The guests appear to be happy, looking at the numbers.
"Last year, the sales growth in the retail store alone was 15 percent growth over the prior year. Fifteen percent is pretty good," he said, noting the restaurant had comparable growth as well.
Cracker Barrel (crackerbarrel.com; traded on Nasdaq as CBRL) has plenty of opportunity for guests to look at the country store set-up, featuring a blend of old nostalgic items (regional sodas, vintage toys, quilts) and more up-to-date items (Alabama and Auburn shirts, country CDs).
"Cracker Barrel is all about the South. Its all about the old country store. That's what it is supposed to be," he said. "Our creator, Danny Evins, created this company back in 1969 and his vision for this company was to be someplace where people could come get a warm, comfortable meal and shop in an environment that reminds them of the past. That is what the store represents. The store represents our past, our history, what we had back then.
"The one thing you see everyday and hear everyday is, 'Oh, remember back when we had these?' Everyday. You go to another store and you are not going to find a Charleston Chew or a candy like Thin Mints."
While waiting to be seated for a meal, people browse in the store, although some wait to browse afterward. Some come just to browse in the store without a meal.
If you thought most browse after the meal, you would be wrong.
"Especially when we are busy, on Sundays or whatever, we have a lot of people who shop beforehand, they put items behind the cash register, and then when they get done eating they will purchase their items," Gajdosik said.
As for top-selling items, in spite of the large candy and food area near the front counter, he said the top sellers would be female apparel, many of the houseware items and jewelry items.
A major item sold by the store are the rockers displayed and used on the front porch, as people are usually waiting to be served.
"And the funny thing is - and I'm not just saying this to sell this - they are an amazing quality rocking chair. And for the price we sell our rocking chairs, you can't go into town and find them for that price," he said. "They are amazing. I have two of them sitting on my porch."
He noted in his travels he will find rockers and look on the back to find the Cracker Barrel coin. Once in an airport he found an entire row of rockers and found out they were all Cracker Barrel rockers.
When asked about how the interstate traffic has helped, Gajdosik said the facility is growing every year.
"The restaurant side has grown 5 to 10 percent in traffic increase ever since that interstate [was connected in Birmingham]," he said. "The retail is kicking right along with it." He expects that level of growth to continue.
"We are still really focused on the locals, because that is what we are about," he said. "But that interstate is really helping to bring us over the top."
On a Sunday, he said an average of 200 people an hour can come through. "On a Sunday, we probably have a couple of thousand on a Sunday alone."
No major radical changes are planned in the future, Gajdosik said, noting the chain is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "On the restaurant side, we've started selling our flavored coffee, your Starbucks type of coffee," he said, saying that keeps the business relevant for today without losing its traditional charm and service.
"One of the big items about to change in March, we're getting ready to sell fried chicken. It's going to have legs, thighs, wings and breast," he said. "They're investing a whole lot of money in every Cracker Barrel to refit them with the right equipment."
He noted customers already love the Sunday baked chicken, and that will now start to be served every day in roughly a couple of months.