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Imagine a place filled to the brim with old clocks and sewing machines, boxes of decades-old porcelain dishes and all the vintage signage you could possibly want — that's Cracker Barrel's antiques warehouse.
That's right: Those Coca-Cola signs and quirky tchotchkes you see hanging on the walls at Cracker Barrel restaurants are, in fact, authentic antiques. And when not in use, they're stored at a 26,000-square-foot warehouse about 30 miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It's basically Disney World for antique hunters.
TODAY Home took a tour of the warehouse and sat down with decor manager Larry Singleton, whose family has handpicked every single antique that you'll find in Cracker Barrels across the country — all 653 locations.
"Probably my favorite part of the job is finding stuff," Singleton said. "I think anybody in this business, they're treasure hunters, you know? They're looking for that pot of gold or that unique thing to find."
For Singleton, hunting down antiques is a family business — one he never thought he would get into. His parents, Don and Kathleen Singleton, owned an antique store in Lebanon, Tennessee, when he was growing up.
In 1969, Danny Evins opened the very first Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, and he asked the Singletons to furnish it with antiques. From there, finding antiques for the restaurants spiraled into a full-time job for the family, and Singleton recalls weekends spent with parents driving around the country to flea markets and auctions.
"I grew up around the antiques, but that wasn't where I was headed," Singleton said, adding that he had worked in construction, but when his mother got sick in 1980, he started helping out more with the antiques. Decades later, he's the go-to person for all things related to Cracker Barrel decor.
"The biggest part of what I do is sourcing, looking for, digging, trying to locate the pieces we use," he said. "Trying to track down old country store memorabilia, from signs to tools."
Before they're placed in stores, all the antiques go through the warehouse, where they're cleaned and inventoried. Singleton and his team will lay out the design of new stores inside the warehouse, creating a mock dining room with pieces that help re-create the atmosphere and feel of an old country store.
"We have close to a million pieces that either my parents or I have acquired," Singleton said. "That's a little mind-boggling for me."
Sure enough, the warehouse is a treasure trove of antiques: There are old radios, guitars, telephones, cooking utensils, even wagons and bicycles. Walking through the warehouse, Singleton revealed that there are four items you'll find in every Cracker Barrel: an ox yoke on the front porch, a horseshoe over the front door, a traffic light above the bathrooms and a deer head over the mantle. (And yes, there are multiples of all those things in the warehouse.)
For Singleton, antiques bring about a pleasant nostalgia, and he thinks of them as bridges between generations.
"People are drawn to the decor pieces because they remind them of their history, things they saw in their parents' or grandparents' house," he said. "Things they grew up with, you know? Things that they wished they had kept when they were growing up. And I think that just gives a sense of comfort."
"The decor creates a relaxed atmosphere," he added. "People don't feel rushed. They're not in a hurry to eat and get out. They can sit there with their family and enjoy a meal, and you know, maybe their grandson says, 'Pa, what is that?'"