Cracker Barrel’s executive team gathered around a table inside of their home office in Lebanon, Tenn., strategizing for methods to continue growing the brand while broadening their demographic. It was 2015 and the company was nearing $3 billion in annual revenue. But Millennials were predicted to become the leading spenders in the years to come, and many of them only ever frequented the Old Country Store with their parents and grandparents. How was Cracker Barrel going to capture their attention?
The executives tossed ideas around the room, only the best ones landing onto the whiteboard. Soon, a concept emerged and announced its presence, requesting to be born. What if, instead of asking that the younger generation see Cracker Barrel as more hip and modern, they gave them a stylish offspring – one that looked less like their grandma’s house and more like their own?
Further brainstorming led them to entertain the idea of forging something that hardly resembled Cracker Barrel at all. No rocking chairs lining the entrance. No board games. No candles, jars of jelly or hard candies for sale. They would call upon their roots – the standardized processes, the consistency, the spirit of Southern culture and the essence of family – but create an identity all of their own. Ordering would be simplified, the vendors would be primarily local and the staff would be smaller. The kitchen would be wide open and visible. The vibe would be chic, while also inviting of individuality and self-expression. This new brand would remain a subsidiary, but have its own creative and culinary breath.
With the support of a marketing team, Mike Chissler, who was Vice President of Operations for Cracker Barrel at the time, took on the responsibility of developing and incubating the new brand’s culture. He envisioned a dynamic where the kitchen interplayed with the guest experience. “We understood that Millennials desire to be a part of something bigger than they are and to be engaged within that process, so this affected how we approached everything from the layout of the restaurant to the staffing process,” he says.
While Cracker Barrel may generate the feeling of a trip to grandma’s house – beckoning us to curl up near a fire with a board game and fill our bellies with comforting indulgence, Holler & Dash would be her grandson’s posh Southern pad. The heartbeat and the bloodline would remain the same, but it would offer a modern interpretation of the individual expressionism yawning and stretching in the minds of curious and option-oriented Millennials.
Eighteen months after, this bud of an idea officially became Holler & Dash. Its first location opened its doors in Homewood, Ala., followed shortly thereafter by Tuscaloosa. They have since added four more – the most recent being in the trendy Melrose neighborhood of Nashville, Tenn. Next in line is Charlotte, N.C.’s South End.
But Chissler, who is now Chief Operating Officer for the new brand, says he doesn’t identify with being a chain at all. “Each restaurant has its own personality and soul, and is catered to its community. In that sense, we are not a restaurant chain, but a chain of unique community restaurants,” he says. Chissler claims his secret weapon is hiring people to be who they really are – sans dress code and stringent restrictions which demand conformity. This means: That guy by the dishwasher wearing red sneakers and donning a mohawk? His supervisors are cool with it. What about the girl displaying her piercings, tattoos and freshly-dyed blue hair? They told her to go for it. In fact, they unabashedly embrace their employees’ creative interpretations of self, so long as they commit to bringing excellence and personality.
“We find people who other people won’t even talk to,” says Chissler. “At Cracker Barrel, if you have visible tattoos, you won’t even get an interview. But, what we have found is that the kids who do wish to express themselves in less conventional ways are often brilliant, creative and shine when allowed to be exactly who they are. I feel like we have opened up a new world for people just by treating them right.”
Most interestingly, each employee is trained on every station. Holler & Dash supervisors permit their employees to follow the whims of their emotional, mental and social preferences on any given day, so long as the team as a whole is equally staffed. No one gets bored and no one is superior to the other. No one is married to any title and, through this process, each is granted the opportunity to identify and cultivate their strengths.
“The diversity of our teams is what makes our brand special. Because we approached the hiring of Holler & Dash the way we did, each building has its own soul. You can feel it when you step into any of our locations,” he says.
You also won’t be smacked with the contrived, nor will you receive a rehearsed greeting when you enter any of its doors. You may hear an exuberant “Welcome!” or you may hear “I’m glad to see you,” but it will be words spoken organically from the individual.
“We want our employees to have real human conversations with our guests, so we don’t even have a specified greeting. We give them parameters, but they interpret our guidelines in a way that isn’t forced and, instead, feels right to them,” says Chissler.
Supervisors strive to bring out the true spirit of each individual employee to then collectively become the spirit of their organization. “If you look around any of our restaurant locations, at least half of what you see is the result of an hourly employee saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t work,’ or “Hey, let’s try this,’ because we welcome their ideas. They are the spirit of Holler & Dash, so we allow them to really be that,” says Chissler.
And much like the consistencies often evident in family bloodlines – from simple mannerisms to artistic talents – the menu at Holler & Dash remains true to its Cracker Barrel upbringing, while interpreting it in a more modern, eclectic and stylish way. “Fine casual” if you will.
One of their signature biscuit items, said by Chissler to be most representative of the brand, is the Kickback Chicken. It is an encapsulation of the modern South – fried chicken served on a hand-rolled biscuit, but firmer and less flaky, capable of being eaten on the go. The chicken is antibiotic- and hormone-free, and is topped with sweet pepper jelly, goat cheese and scallions. Its diverse flavor profile is adventurous and experimental, yet remains a celebration of the simplicity of its Southern roots.
All menu items – from the biscuit varieties to the beignets to the grit bowl – are driven by chef Brandon Frohne, a Nashville favorite and Culinary Director for the brand, and can be washed down with fresh drip coffee, house-made craft sodas and organic teas. “The menu at Holler & Dash celebrates the heritage of Southern heirloom recipes we’ve all come to know and love. Each dish is punctuated with new and vibrant flavors from the diverse culture that makes up contemporary Southern cuisine,” says Frohne.
Don’t expect to find any old-fashioned signs inside of this Cracker Barrel heir. Instead, where the exposed brick meets the mason jars, you will be surrounded by a bright color palette and a quilt wall – made from images of signs contained within the Cracker Barrel warehouse. The floorplan is open – the biscuit station front and center and the kitchen on unfiltered display. The ovens even turn in the direction of the dining area.
“We have always said the kitchen is the heart of it all, so we want our guests to feel like they are a part of it, too. In Southern tradition, family gatherings almost always start and end in the kitchen. So do we,” says Chissler.
Although the stylish biscuit house chain has no immediate plans to expand beyond the Southeast, it is possible for the future. But, no matter how far north or west they go, they promise to not only remain true to their Southern heritage, but to the spirit of enterprise from which they came to be.
“We took an idea that was up on a white board and built a brand from it. And we have given 200 people an opportunity that they may not have had,” says Chissler. “That, above all, is what Holler & Dash is about: The freedom to let everybody be who they are, come together as a family and go as far as they can dream for themselves.”
This article is featured in The Connect magazine’s Holiday 2017/2018 issue. To enjoy the full issue, including exclusive interviews with Hollywood power player Kiki Ayers and legendary branding guru Louis Upkins, expert tips for becoming your healthiest version in the New Year, as well as a peek at the 6,000-year-old goldmines resting inside of the Asian Art Museum, order here. Download the digital version here.