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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Cracker Barrel and the muffin maximization

Following closely on the heels of an apparent hoaxing of KFC — an individual Jackson, Miss., restaurant and the company as a whole, causing regrettable ripples of the fool-me-twice variety — comes news of trouble for another family-friendly eatery.

Joe Koblenzer, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran, was fired from his job as a Venice Cracker Barrel host last month after, the story goes, he gave a corn muffin to a man who “looked a little needy” who came in asking for condiment packages to use on the fish he said he was going to cook.

What began as a simple Facebook posting has turned into a global Internet conflagration, with overheated public opinion in comments sections running about 10,000 to 1 against America’s favorite country kitchen, all of it boiling down to a creamy reduction gravy amounting to this:

By helping curb the appetite of one of the world’s less fortunate, Koblenzer performed a compassionate act, one for which he ought to be rewarded, not dismissed. The religious add appeals to Jesus (who fed the multitudes, after all) and the secular excoriate the greedy, soulless corporate giant that clears millions and probably pitches muffins by the dozen come closing time.

Fired over a muffin? Come on, man.

Moreover, it seems to matter not one whit that Koblenzer readily admits he’d been cited in the past for fudging company rules; the muffin caper was his fifth since his hiring in 2011. For his part, the ex-employee concedes his breaches, was, indeed, a serial rule-breaker, and says he doesn’t blame the company for his lost job. In that respect, he’s less of a whiner than the masses lining up to give Cracker Barrel a severe public relations headache.


Here’s the deal: It’s not just one host, one needy-looking guy and one muffin. If it were, then yes, Cracker Barrel would have needlessly stepped in it. But Koblenzer had a history of ignoring company policy when it suited him, and you can bet his colleagues knew it. Also, he’d been counseled, and you can bet his colleagues knew the particulars about that, too. Koblenzer, who went to war, ought to have remembered the critical nature of platoon morale and discipline, and applied it to his Cracker Barrel team.

What happens where you work if someone repeatedly violates company policy but seems to get away with it? It doesn’t matter the size of the transgression. You notice, right? It’s human nature. It’s also human nature to wonder why you’re playing by the rules that don’t make much sense to you when the guy in the next cubicle keeps trimming without apparent consequences.

Koblenzer was the guy in your office who habitually cheated the boss, making you feel like a chump for your obedience. His motivation doesn’t matter, but, by the way, did Jesus feed the multitudes with loaves and fishes he took without permission? Here, his admonition about knowing what is God’s and what is Caesar’s applies.

Give Koblenzer yet another pass, soon enough other employees would be doing the same. The situation escalates. Maybe next time the needy looking fellow brings a couple of friends. Maybe next time it’s not even a needy looking fellow, but it’s somebody from the neighborhood who’s heard Cracker Barrel is giving away muffins. Make mine blueberry. Now friends and cousins of employees are stopping by with the munchies. Could you maybe sneak me a piece of pie?

Every time it happens, it’s stealing, no less than if a cashier dips into the register. Can any Cracker Barrel store afford that? For a little while. But restaurant margins are notoriously thin, and it doesn’t take much to sink them into the red, and from red into oblivion. Who gets fed when nobody gets paid? Inventory control, then, is everything.

As for the company’s absence of soul, Cracker Barrel runs a charitable foundation that benefits local communities wherever it has a restaurant, funneling, as a corporation, millions to education (higher ed and adult literacy), human services, military veterans outreach and cultural and environmental concerns. Do the critics know that? Can the critics work a search engine? Or do they simply vent on prejudice?

Fired over just one muffin? Wrong. It was not just one muffin. It is never just one muffin, and Cracker Barrel did what it had to do.