BY DOUGLAS MARTIN
DANNY Evins, who turned a $US40,000 loan into a $2.4 billion highway restaurant chain across the United States and fought a losing battle to discriminate against gay employees has died of bladder cancer in Lebanon, Tennessee. He was 76.
Evins was an oil jobber (middleman between petroleum refiners and retailers) when he hit upon an idea that would change his life and the American highway: a down-home restaurant with rocking chairs on the front porch, a potbellied stove and fireplace inside, and a checkerboard on every table.
The typically Tennessean food including catfish, biscuits and gravy, and pineapple upside-down cake would be ample, reasonably priced and swiftly delivered.
Evins' concept, marketed as the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, is now offered in 600 company-owned restaurants in 42 states. And year after year Cracker Barrel wins polls for excellence as a family restaurant.
Evins staked out real estate at exits on interstate highways to establish a distinctive alternative to fast food one that included gift shops featuring homemade jellies in old-fashioned glass jars.
However, he ran into a barrage of criticism after a January 1991 directive to all the company's restaurants to fire employees "whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values".
He claimed gay people made customers in rural areas uncomfortable. About 16 openly or suspected gay employees were promptly fired.
Protests erupted at restaurants in dozens of cities and towns, boycotts were organised and shareholders complained. At a time when discrimination against gay people was not prohibited under the laws of most states or the federal government, Cracker Barrel's action stood out for its sheer blatancy.
By March that year, Evins had apologised and said the policy had been rescinded. But the New York City Employees Retirement System, which owned more than $6 million of Cracker Barrel shares, and its allies, fought until 58 per cent of the shareholders in 2002 persuaded Cracker Barrel's board to vote unanimously to explicitly forbid anti-gay discrimination in its equal employment policy.
Born Dannie Wood Evins (he later changed his first name to reflect the conventional spelling) in Smithville, Tennessee, he attended military school and served three years in the United States Marine Corps.
He then worked for two years as an aide to his uncle, Joseph Evins, a 15-term US congressman from Tennessee. In the late 1950s, he returned to Lebanon and worked as a teller in his brother's bank, before becoming a jobber for Consolidated Oil, a company founded by his grandfather.