SOUTH PORTLAND — Southern-fried restaurant chain Cracker Barrel is finding hungry customers in the land of lobster, steamers and baked beans.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s first restaurant in Maine represents the chain’s northernmost foray in the East. And Mainers seem to be taking a shine to the chicken and dumplings, biscuits and sawmill gravy, and other southern staples like turnip greens, pork barbecue and grits.
Well, scratch the grits.
“I’ll try anything once – but I’m not trying those grits. No way,” chuckled Sandra Butler of South Portland, after giving fried okra and turnip greens a try.
Southern cooking knows no boundaries, apparently. The South Portland restaurant was running 25 percent ahead of projections when it opened last month, the company says.
Decorated with antiques, rocking chairs and checkerboards, the restaurant presents a familiar face to New Englanders who’ve traveled through Florida and other parts of the South where Cracker Barrels are a highway fixture. And they’ve developed a loyal following, even far north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Chris and Anne Taylor of Topsham readily confess that they used to drive two hours to eat at a Cracker Barrel in Massachusetts before the South Portland restaurant opened. Now the restaurant is only 30 miles away, and they’ve made it a Wednesday night ritual to dine there for “date night.”
“The nice thing about a place like this is you get to experience a little taste of another part of the country cuisine that you don’t get if you grow up in Maine,” he said.
Cracker Barrel’s menu features things like country-fried steak, fried chicken, fried chicken livers and catfish; fried apples, pinto beans, turnip greens and hashbrown casserole; for dessert there’s a plethora of cobblers. All of it can be washed down with iced tea or lemonade.
For breakfast, customers can soak their biscuits in pure sorghum molasses, honey, or thick sawmill gravy, and there’s buttermilk pancakes, red-eye gravy and grits, made from coarsely ground corn.
There’s meatloaf, chicken pot pie, and other comfort food. But by golly, there’s also grilled trout, salads and other healthier fare. In a nod to New England, haddock is on the local menu.
It’s hard to beat the prices, with entrees mostly ranging from $7 to $10. A 10-ounce rib-eye steak is the most expensive item on the menu, and it goes for $12.99
The Tennessee-based restaurant chain got its start in 1969 when Danny Evins opened a restaurant with an eye to recreating the country store of yesteryear, when crackers were delivered in barrels and barrels were recycled as checkerboard tables. Country stores in the South were meeting places, much like the northern version, the general store, and the western version, the trading post, said spokeswoman Julie Davis
While larger than Evins’ original – the South Portland restaurant can seat 207 – the modern Cracker Barrel remains a place where customers can slow down, said restaurant manager J.R. Rivet.
“Sometimes everything is going so fast out in the world,” Rivet said. “You’ve got texting. You’ve got e-mail on your phone. You come to a Cracker Barrel and you look around – it’s the way things were. You look at the phone on the wall, it has a handcrank. You have no choice but to kind of settle down,” he said.
Until the early 1990s, the company stuck mostly to its base in the South, but it’s now spreading out in all directions, Davis said. There are currently 597 restaurants in 42 states.
The South Portland restaurant opens as customers around the country have shown greater willingness over the last six to eight months to dine out after a disastrous couple of years in which restaurants were hard-hit by bankruptcies, said R.J. Hottovy, senior analyst at Chicago-based Morningstar, an investment research firm.
“There’s a willingness to spend more, or to allocate more dollars to dining out,” he said. “Generally speaking, we’ve seen traffic improve in the casual dining space.”
With $2.4 billion in revenue for its last fiscal year, the company is still looking for additional opportunities to expand. The company isn’t ruling out additional locations in Maine.
That’d be just fine with Elizabeth Grant of Westbrook.
The homey feel and comfort food take her back to a simpler time.
“What draws us to it is that it’s just like home cooking. Even though it’s a big restaurant, a big chain of restaurants, they still capture that,” she said. “You feel like you’re sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen, eating dinner. That’s what it means to me. It’s nice.”