In this series, Crain’s looks at a multigenerational business and talks to the proprietors about how they’ve adapted to changes in their industry.
Long before those shows became cultural forces, Singleton and his family have been digging through barns and abandoned storefronts.
“It’s like treasure hunting,” says Singleton, 58. “That's the part I love, finding it.”
The business, Spider Web Antiques, started in 1966 but began growing when Singleton’s parents—Don and Kathleen—started working with Danny Evins, a Shell Oil distributor with a vision.
Evins wanted to combine a gas station, restaurant and gift shop under an old country store theme. In 1969, he opened the first Cracker Barrel, decorated with the Singletons’ antiques. Then Evins opened another location. And another.
Larry Singleton now serves as décor manager for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Corp., overseeing an empire of 636 stores and a 26,500-square-foot warehouse. Singleton couldn’t have predicted that a part-time hobby would turn into multi-generational business.
“I went to flea markets when I was just a kid and auctions and helped my parents out,” says Singleton. “My mom worked on getting me to collect stuff when I was young. But it never did cross my mind that this is what I'm going to be doing for the next 30 or 40 years. It did turn out perfect.”
Singleton started helping out in 1979, eventually leaving his construction job as his parents grew older and Cracker Barrel expanded. In the mid-1990s, the chain started to boom, which forced Singleton to change his tactics. No longer could he personally find the pieces required to outfit 40-50 new Cracker Barrels a year.
“I was traveling, going to all these markets all over the country. I couldn't do it all,” says Singleton, who now relies on a network of dealer relationships and the internet to find new pieces.
Tracking inventory was another problem, and Singleton had to adapt.
“We were just making out these handwritten red tags and fixing them to everything,” Singleton remembers.
That evolved into system of scanning bar codes and computer-assisted inventory control.
“We had to work on that technology. And you know, I think we had the oldest scan guns in the country until last year,” Singleton says.
As the times have changed, so has the definition of what constitutes an antique. Each store, Singleton says, has to be a reflection of its community—of the surrounding location and culture. But that culture shifts with time. Vintage Coca-Cola advertising and John Deere signs are now joined with metal lunchboxes from the 1970s. It makes Singleton wonder what people will collect in the future.
“Products weren't as disposable as they are now,” he says. “What is going to be around in the next 10 or 20 years? What did we have in the ’70s and the ’80s that will be here in the next 20 years? I don't know what's going to be collectable and savable over the next few years.”
But there’s hope for the future. Singleton’s 11-year-old grandson Caden is now accompanying him to auctions and flea markets.
He asks: “Pa, why is everything you like old?”
That makes Singleton laugh.
“This is important to share. I am trying to begin to get him to appreciate what ‘old’ means,” Singleton says. “I've got some old motorcycles and cars—and he's starting to say that stuff is cool. I think he is starting to learn and appreciate it, so we will see.”
As he nurtures the next generation, Singleton’s enthusiasm for antiquing hasn’t waned. There’s always that next piece, that treasure unseen.
“I was in a shop down in Alabama last week and it was just full of country store fixtures,” Singleton says. “And I could just feel the excitement rising up.”
Follow Cracker Barrel on Twitter at @CrackerBarrel.
Photos courtesy of Cracker Barrel.