Care for some antiques with your meal?
Larry Singleton acknowledges that he lives in the past.
He loves discovering caches of cranberry sorters, rusted ash sifters, cattle stanchions, rug beaters and tobacco setters. He enjoys hunting for dehorners, ox yokes and seed sowers. He bargains for butter churns, cream separators and lard presses. And if he finds some crockery jugs, curry flytraps or hoop cheese cutters along the way, he’ll take them, too.
But these antiques aren't just for Singleton's personal collection; they're also for his day job as decor manager at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a national chain of more than 500 home-style restaurants.
“It just kind of creates that bit of nostalgic grab for people,” Singleton said. “That comfortableness that I don’t know you can get any other way except using authentic items.”
Singleton, 49, may be the ultimate example of how some in the restaurant business have tried to generate a nostalgic atmosphere by filling the walls with antiques. Chain restaurants like TGI Friday’s, Houlihan’s, Ruby Tuesday and Applebee’s are but a few of the establishments trying to make old new again.
In 2003, executives at TGI Friday’s thought that by revamping their restaurants' decor they would be able to stanch a decline in business. In the redesign, they discarded antiques like farming tools and metal signs from the '30s, '40s and '50s in favor of more modern items, like disco balls, snowboards, Harley Davidson apparel and MTV's moon man.
The older antiques “were no longer recognizable by the guest and not relevant to our customer,” said Chris Devlin, senior vice president of development for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which operates TGI Friday’s. “We really brought the decor itself forward to the point where the items are more in the sort of 10- to 25-year range.”
Devlin says the company spends $15,000 to $20,000 on antiques for each location.
TGI Friday’s buys many of its antiques on eBay, but there is little variation in items from restaurant to restaurant. For example, Devlin said each location had a wall with similar music albums, but the arrangement might be slightly different in each outlet.
Cracker Barrel, on the other hand, designs each restaurant individually. In the Mount Laurel, N.J., restaurant, which was built on a cranberry bog, Singleton’s team put up old cranberry signs. In restaurants in Massachusetts, Singleton placed Boston shipping receipts and diplomas from local schools.
Where other restaurants focus on entertainment and pop culture, Cracker Barrel focuses on items that would have been sold in an old country store, like washboards and tea kettles.
“There are some areas of the store that are, you could say, generic,” said Jim Taylor, a spokesman for Cracker Barrel. “But then we’re going back through the catalog to really find hometown connections.”
That’s where Singleton steps in. Whether the items are “generic” or location specific, Singleton and his 12-member team select all of the nearly 1,000 antiques that decorate each Cracker Barrel restaurant. Their budget is roughly $25,000 for each store.
To keep up with the demand, Singleton manages a warehouse in Lebanon, Tenn., that holds more than 100,000 items. Singleton’s staff categorizes, refurbishes and cleans every item.
Singleton says many of Cracker Barrel’s antiques come from families who no longer have a need for old odds and ends. One of his favorite finds was the stash he discovered from a little old lady in Wayne, N.J.
“One of the best buys I ever found in my life,” Singleton said. “Her and her husband had traveled for 45 years in a Volkswagen all through New England and buying anything handmade.”
The antique collection included roughly 1,500 augers, 800 blacksmith tongs and 1,000 barn door hinges, among other artifacts dating from the late 1700s. The collection was so vast that Singleton made five trips in a 28-foot tractor trailer between New Jersey and Tennessee. “We had to limit the trailer because there was so much weight,” he said. “Boy, we hauled out of there for four or five years.”
Singleton said that today those antiques are spread out among hundreds of restaurants. And if they’re not hanging above plates of fried chicken and baskets of cornbread, they’re still waiting their turn in Cracker Barrel’s warehouse.
Each restaurant chain uses the antiquing method in a distinct way, some with a mix of authentic antiques and reproductions.
Chili’s and On the Border emphasize their Southwestern cuisine with sombreros and vintage pictures of Mexico. Applebee’s stresses its neighborhood image with artifacts of hometown heroes and trophies from local sports teams.
Outback Steakhouse uses Australian memorabilia, like surfboards, maps, flags and boomerangs, while Carrabba's Italian Grill displays ceramics, copper pots and framed black and white photos.
Hard Rock Cafe lists on its Web site what a diner can expect to see in each restaurant. In the Mumbai, India, location, there's a radio once owned by John Lennon, a set of maracas used by Jimi Hendrix and a coat worn by Prince in the film "Purple Rain." In the Key West, Fla., location, there is a Bob Dylan guitar, a biker jacket signed by The Ramones and a Hawaiian shirt worn by Jimmy Buffett.
Many of these restaurants have jumped on the retro bandwagon in the hope of attracting business through nostalgia.
But for Singleton, a collector himself, antiquing has always been less about the bottom line and more of a family affair: His parents were Cracker Barrel’s first designers in 1969. In fact, he lives in his parents’ old antique shop in Lebanon, Tenn., among countless doodads and thingamajigs.
“I accidentally just slipped into this growing up,” said Singleton, who was literally giddy over a recent acquisition of 938 paperweights. “I never thought it would be what I would end up doing.”