Paul Batura: Seeking Cracker Barrel wisdom in a Whole Foods world

You could spend a month of Sundays taking personality tests, many of which are accurate and insightful. But when you come right down to it, I think you can tell a lot more about someone by how they answer this question:

On any given day, would you rather go to a diner or a five-star restaurant?

I grew up going to diners, roadside eateries with simple fare and something for everyone. I miss the Greek-owned diners of Long Island, the comfortable booths with the little jukeboxes at the end of the table, and the menus with as many pages as an old small-town phonebook.

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We may not have the same diners in Colorado as New York, but we do have Cracker Barrel, the popular nationwide family restaurant that's best known for its wide array of comfort food and signature general store that sells everything from "Country Faith" CD's to "I Love Lucy" DVD's.

With 645 stores spread across 44 states, many of them situated in the southeast, the Tennessee-headquartered company is poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sept. 19.

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Whenever I give our boys a choice of where they'd like to go for breakfast on their birthday, there's a good chance Cracker Barrel gets their vote. "I love the pancakes," our son Will recently told me. "And I especially like that they give you your own little bottles of syrup."

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I like Cracker Barrel, too, but not only because of their food. I think I'm drawn to the place because it reminds me of childhood, of diners and mom-and-pop places, not to mention home-cooked meals with my family. I also enjoy it because of the people I meet there, like Nancy Wegeman, an 80-year-old woman who, after hearing we were there to celebrate Will, sang "Happy Birthday" to him as we left.

I was thinking about their homespun atmosphere recently as I made my way through Whole Foods, the popular health food store. I stopped there recently to try and find some marshmallows. Due to allergies, the organic grocer is the only place that sells the brand our son can eat.

I think I'm drawn to the place because it reminds me of childhood, of diners and mom-and-pop places, not to mention home-cooked meals with my family.

Truth be told, I feel a lot more comfortable sitting by the fireplace at Cracker Barrel than I do inside a massive health food store full of unfamiliar brands. I have no bone to pick with the Austin, Texas-based grocer. Good and decent people frequent both (including my wife!). There are plenty of things to like there and I appreciate how they don’t fill a lot of their products with things our boys can’t or shouldn’t eat.

By contrast, there is simple and enduring wisdom to be culled in founder Dan Evin's Cracker Barrel brand:

It's good to sometimes slow down and ponder life in a rocking chair. Each Cracker Barrel has wooden rockers on the restaurant's front porch. Rocking quietly can give perspective to our problems.

Don't forget to have fun. Every store has giant checkerboards and each table has a peg solitaire board that you can play while waiting for your meal.

A roaring fire can warm even a cold heart. The tall stone fireplaces draw customers in, especially on cold days. Sometimes it's good to linger and enjoy the aroma of burning wood.

Be yourself. Don't conform to the norms of the world. Like the classic diner, Cracker Barrel serves breakfast all day long. Feel like pancakes for dinner? Go for it!

Tradition is a good thing. The old-time candy and products in the general store are a reminder that you don't have to discard the things of yesterday simply because the things of today are shiny and new.

Everything is fine in moderation. Too many big servings of hearty food can cause health problems -- but box things up and take it home for lunch or dinner.

Strangers are simply friends you haven't yet met. There is friendliness among wait staff and customers, the latter because many are passing through. Strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler -- you might just learn something interesting and make a friend for life.

I guess there are a lot of reasons why I feel so comfortable at Cracker Barrel. Beyond the nostalgia, I understand every word on their menu -- which gives me the sense that their corporate culture understands me, too.

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And I like the atmosphere. In a culture obsessed with speed and sophistication, of everything new and improved, I often wish the world contained more of the charm, tradition, wisdom and slow pace of Cracker Barrel.

Pancakes for dinner, anyone?

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