Danny Evins, founder of the Cracker Barrel and architect of years of anti-gay discrimination, died on Sunday of bladder cancer. He was 76. Evins left behind a thriving franchise. After beginning as a single store, Cracker Barrel grew to a $2 billion chain with over 600 restaurants in 42 states. In addition to a story of massive growth, however, the story of Cracker Barrel is also a controversial tale of discrimination.
Evins was born in Tennessee, and worked in the oil industry until 1969, when he opened the first Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, Tennessee. Evins looked and acted the part of a Southern gentleman, and his restaurant matched this image. From the start, Cracker Barrel was known for its down-home, country-style cooking.
By 1991, the Cracker Barrel franchise was a major success, having grown to over 100 restaurants. But Cracker Barrel decided that gays could not be a part of their family-safe environment, and the company issued a policy statement forbidding the hiring of people “whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society.”
As many as 16 employees were fired after the policy statement was issued. Although firing employees because of their sexual orientation was not illegal at the time, many were shocked by the explicit nature of the policy. David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said, “They actually put a policy like this in writing, which was, and still is, shocking.”
After gay rights groups began protesting, Evins apologized for the policy, and Cracker Barrel rescinded it. Still, Evins said he would only hire employees who were openly gay “where we do not perceive it would disrupt our business,” and suggested that Cracker Barrel might not higher gays in certain rural areas.
In 2002, Cracker Barrel finally ceded to pressure from shareholders, including the New York City Employees Retirement System, and added gays to its non-discrimination policy. Still, Cracker Barrel continues to rank among the worst companies for gays and lesbians to work for, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.