Cracker Barrel Freshens Old Country Experience

The idea: The first Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store opened in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., as a testament to authentic Americana. Nearly 40 years later, the brand has expanded to 580 locations across the country that have become synonymous with meal stops on family road trips. But along with success and the mass-production process came some fear that the brand could lose its stake to authenticity. A redesign of the Old Country Store’s pantry products was viewed as a way to harken back to a simpler time and communicate the brand’s 40-year heritage. “We saw an opportunity to make the package really go back to those roots—to use some restraints with printing techniques and materials [and not] use every [design] bell and whistle available today,” said Paul Brourman, president and chief creative officer at Sponge, the Chicago design agency that tackled the project. “And at the same time, give it a fresh face that feels like something you would want on your shelf or countertop today.”

The research: The Old Country Store adjacent to each Cracker Barrel restaurant was designed to give diners a chance to shop in a quaint, Early American setting while waiting to be called to the table. Not to mention it allows the chain to extend its dining experience into one’s home through gift foods. Sponge began soaking up information on vintage design rules that would inspire the new packaging of these products. A tour of Cracker Barrel’s warehouse of old products and antiques was the agency’s first stop. “You can say, ‘I’m authentic,’ but to actually live it you’ve got to do the homework of understanding the era,” Brourman said. “We read a lot of books and studied packaging from earlier times [to better understand] the sensibilities. We did a lot of deep study on textures and colors. The answer, we felt, was a more authentic packaging treatment with an overall feel that would capture that true American heritage.”

The design:
This time-traveling exercise helped the agency reach a design directive built on that idea of restraint, which drove what the packaging should—and as importantly, shouldn’t—look like. While working sans a Pantone color wheel and fewer raw materials might seem challenging, Sponge found it somewhat freeing. “We enjoyed the fact that the intent was to have it feel more minimalistic,” Brourman said, noting that these muted designs still needed to have a fresh, inviting quality or they would present as flat and boring. While the old packaging was glossy, the new design was made matte to replicate the solid, fading colors reminiscent of the staples that stock shelves in old country stores. The typography was purposely kept simple: The brand did not want a handscratched, “I made this myself” look, but something that reflected an established brand from simple times with classic American values.

Challenges: Along with the era-appropriate typography, labels needed to reflect the printing methods—including shortcomings—of the earlier age. “Inks didn’t hold the way they do today,” Brourman said.