You’re Not Meant To Eat Everything On The Menu

Many of you may have seen the news about the accusations of “wokeness” being leveled at the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel for adding plant based breakfast sausage to the menu. To be clear, they aren’t replacing the existing meat based sausage option, just adding the plant-based option.

Upon reading this, I immediately thought of a talk Nina Simon did at the Minnesota History conference discussing her book, The Art of Relevance. Specifically, I was reminded of her statement that not everything an arts organization does is for the insiders. She mentions this idea in other talks that she did, but this was my first introduction to the concept so I remembered it clearly and thought the Cracker Barrel story was a good opportunity to revisit it.

While I remembered this talk so clearly I was able to find my post on her talk immediately, I had not recalled just how appropriate it was.

Right there in the second paragraph I wrote,

“She uses the metaphor about going to a restaurant and how you don’t suddenly decide to boycott the restaurant if they start adding vegetarian and heart healthy options to their regular menu.”

Sorry Nina, it looks like you were wrong.
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There are a lot of lessons and things to consider in the Cracker Barrel example. There are a number of other restaurants and chains that started offering faux meat like the Impossible Burger without this sort of reaction. Dunkin Donuts in particular offered the breakfast veggie-sausage patty on their menu. So why the negative reaction to Cracker Barrel’s decision? My theory is that people have made the restaurant chain part of their identity and adding a non-meat option threatens that identity in some way.

I think in a lot of ways arts organizations might view their core supporters reacting in a similar manner and be reluctant to effect change. Honestly, I don’t know that Cracker Barrel offers a cautionary tale to most arts organizations. I do think that there will be a lot of people in a community who very closely identify with and organization and are invested in its well-being, to the point they will mention a show they just attended a few months ago. The fact the show was two years ago just illustrates they feel like they have close ties.

On the whole, I think it will be like most restaurants adding heart healthy and vegetarian options — people’s eyes will pass over those listings looking for what they like. New opportunities to open doors to new audiences isn’t going to bother long term supporters overall, especially if promoted well while maintaining a perception that long term supporters aren’t losing anything by it. It think it is easy to overestimate the push back. I have seen a whole season of classical music concerts fill the house despite the inclusion of some contemporary, non-canonical pieces. The traditional audiences seemed happy to see younger audiences filling in the seats beside them.

Certainly, context matters and the emergence from Covid restrictions provides license to try new approaches. Arts and cultural organizations would be wise take advantage of this opportunity.

This is not to say that there aren’t organizations with which supporters have made their association an integral part of their identity. Supporters for whom any change feels like a personal threat. A situation like this bears very, very serious examination. Not only is it an impediment to inviting new people in to renew the vitality of the organization, but it may clash with the organization’s self-perception of who they are for. Most Cracker Barrel locations are near interstate highways so the addition of the vegetable based faux meat is meant to signal that travelers with different dietary preferences are welcome. But the response of a lot of customers is, no they are not.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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2 thoughts on “You’re Not Meant To Eat Everything On The Menu”

  1. I love being wrong!

    More seriously, this story (which I’ve followed with interest as a vegetarian who often has to get creative with food choices on long road trips) makes me think about a few things:
    1. These kinds of changes are perceived very differently by dominant vs. non-dominant groups. As a vegetarian, I’m thrilled when there is something on the menu for me, and I’m completely accustomed to the fact that most menus have a ton of meat on them and I can’t do a damn thing about it. But, a proud meat-eater might feel very differently, might feel that “their” place is being infiltrated by undesirable minorities.
    2. We are sometimes inappropriately attuned and sensitive to the loud voices of angry dominant groups. We focus on the negative, and we focus on the people we already know. These are the customers we already have, not the customers we _might_ attain with the changes. Even the CNN article you link to notes that there are people both for and against the Cracker Barrel menu addition. My impression is that it is not entirely negative response… though that’s where our eye often lingers.
    3. Real change can kick up dust, but strong leaders pursue it for strategic reasons. I give props to Cracker Barrel (and Burger King, and Denny’s, and so many others) who have seen the market advantage to a diversified menu and are sticking it out. Their response to this whole dust-up is admirable.

    I know quite a few orgs that have abandoned change efforts because of a few loud voices of the discontent. But the ones that stick it out, that stay attentive to the voices of dominant groups AND non-dominant potential participants, that try to welcome the new and educate the longstanding about the value and importance of change, those orgs often make transformative, positive change.

    Reply
    • I think you are being a little charitable when you say you love being wrong about this because it was a pretty reasonable observation to make that people aren’t threatened by the addition of healthier and alternative options. Heart healthy icons have been on menus for a long time. In a large part this is probably a reflection of the cultural climate and a concern that those being invited by this menu addition represents an erosion of those things that make Cracker Barrel feel like a sanctuary.

      All of which makes this a good illustration for arts orgs to consider. There are many parallels, including as you note, people who welcome the change. The challenge arts orgs face is that they are more dependent on the goodwill of supporters and supporters tend to have a deeper emotional investment in the decisions that are made.

      Dunkin Donuts stopped carrying the Impossible meat sausage in most of its stores due to low sales. It is apparently only offered in western states right now. I suspect few people stopped going to DD when they began offering the option. There is a forgiveness/forgetting about bad product line offerings by commercial companies that non-profit arts organizations don’t tend to enjoy. Though in five years it wouldn’t surprise me to hear people loudly saying they stopped going to Cracker Barrel because of this decision. (It also wouldn’t surprise me to hear the restaurant’s business remained flat or increased five years from now.)

      Reply

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