Column: Looking for an eating establishment with a real theme

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 16, 2002

In an era when the cookie cutter concept has resulted in repetition from city to city by so many firms, even restaurants and fast food places have become a part of this trend.

For example, here in Albert Lea, and over in Austin and up in Owatonna and elsewhere in the nation, Applebee’s uses nostalgia from another era as their gimmick for the interior decoration themes. Thus, people waiting for the food entrees to be brought to the booth, table or bar locations can look around on the walls at quite an array of photos and other items based on film and television stars from the past to revive memories.

Sometimes just one distinct feature makes an eating place really stand out from the rest of the chain establishments along the highways and byways. And my prime example is based on the golden arch of McDonald’s.

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Yet, even a McDonald’s can evolve into something else on the interior. The menu may be the same from place to place, but once in a while a McDonald’s can have a different atmosphere. This is certainly true for the rock and roll theme at the fairly new McDonald’s in Owatonna.

One of the most unusual eating places with a theme between here and the Twin Cities is the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. This particular roadside business which looks like a transplanted village store from a small Southern town is located near Exit 85 on I-35 in Lakeville.

The building’s interior is divided into two separate sections. One part is a retail store with some rather unusual merchandise items. In the other portion of this building is a restaurant with a menu that has strong emphasis on &uot;down home&uot; or homemade food. Incidentally, this Cracker Barrel happens to be a good place to stop for both shopping and eating.

On the walls of this eating place are metal signs advertising now nearly forgotten products like Royal Crown Cola, plus an array of knick-knacks and framed photos which look like they came from someone’s attic or an antique store.

However, this Lakeville establishment isn’t really a one-of-a-kind place. I’ve been in almost identical places in Wisconsin and Indiana. The Lakeville establishment is just one of about 450 Cracker Barrels located in 41 states, with headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn. Minnesota’s other Cracker Barrel, by the way, is located near I-694 and Shingle Creek Parkway in Brooklyn Park.

All this commentary reminds me about the time I became involved with the creation of an eating place with a distinctive theme.

About three decades ago I was working for the Olson Mfg. Co. here in Albert Lea. One morning my employer and the firm’s owner, Harlan L. Olson, received a call from a well known Twin Cities contractor. This man said he was coming to the city to purchase some barn equipment.

That afternoon I was given the assignment to escort this contractor and his two associates around the showroom, plant and warehouse. These men soon indicated they weren’t interested in new stalls, stanchions or pen work. What they wanted was old and even used barn equipment.

In time, we ended up in a basement room which had once been used for coal storage. This area had been converted into the firm’s junk room.

Some of the stanchions hanging in this room were experimental units which hadn’t really worked out; others were items discontinued years ago. The men said these somewhat rusty stanchions and other material were just what they wanted. The contractor purchased most of this alleged scrap and hauled it back to the Twin Cities in his truck.

I asked the contractor what he planned to do with these rejects and odds and ends of barn equipment. He said his firm would be constructing a new restaurant near the stockyards in South St. Paul. These items would be used for the interior wall decor to give the place a real rural atmosphere.

I wonder if this eating place up in the Twin Cities with an Albert Lea connection is still in business? Also, did they refer to the seating for the patrons as booths, or as stalls?

Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.