Sometimes a single and seemingly isolated event, or even a lone news story, has the power to illuminate the state of social conditions and economic tensions that are far greater and more important than are the details of the report itself. On occasion, and with a little thought, the disparate acts of an individual can bring into sharper focus the economic, political and cultural conditions flourishing across an entire society. Scott Kaufman’s news report about Cracker Barrel’s firing of a 79-year-old Vietnam veteran for giving a homeless man a corn muffin struck me as one of those stories.
Kaufman’s article, written for Raw Story, tells us about Joe Koblenzer, a Florida man who had been working for Cracker Barrel for about three years until he gave a homeless looking man a corn muffin. Evidently the homeless looking man entered the restaurant and asked if he could have some condiments for a fish he was going to cook. Koblenzer got the man what he asked for and while putting the condiments into a bag he added a single corn muffin. The man left the restaurant and shortly thereafter Koblenzer was called into his manager’s office and fired for the act of kindness.
When the story of his firing became public, Cracker Barrel simply asserted that he was a serial offender and had been warned about giving away food on other occasions. Koblenzer is now looking for a new job to supplement his social security income.
I suppose taken at face value, the report passes as just another human-interest story. Yet when one looks behind the story a bit, it evidences a far greater tale about what is going on in America.
Everyone, especially those of us from the south, know Cracker Barrel as the folksy little country store and restaurant—a place where you can buy things that no one should want to buy. It is difficult to drive past any significant sized highway exit without seeing a sign for one of the stores. Cracker Barrel takes great pride in cultivating that folksy image. The company even trade marks the slogan, “At Cracker Barrel Old Country Store®, it’s always been about Pleasing People®.”
On their website they go on to write, “We’re known for providing a friendly home away from home atmosphere in our old country store and restaurant…” Well apparently not so friendly for the homeless folks or their too compassionate workers.
Further cultivating it’s image of southern hospitality, the company’s mission statement reads:
… since the very first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store® opened back in 1969 in Lebanon,
Tennessee, we’ve kept things pretty simple. The way we see it, our mission is to please
people. Nothing more. Nothing less…. If everyone who walks in our front door gets a warm
welcome and a good meal at a fair price… If everyone who works with us or whom we do business
with is treated fairly and with respect. If we do all those things, well, then we figure the
business will take care of itself.
Cracker Barrel is far from the little mom and pop, folksy operation that can’t afford the loss of a single corn muffin to a homeless person. In fact, that friendly “old country store and restaurant” is a mammoth multi-billion dollar corporation. According to its 2014 quarterly Investor Fiscal Report, the company expects revenues of anywhere between “$2.7 billion and $2.75 billion, an operating income margin of between 7.8% and 8.0%, and earnings per diluted share of between $5.60 and $5.80. The revenue projection for fiscal 2014 reflects the expected opening of seven or eight new Cracker Barrel stores, and projected increases in comparable store restaurant sales and retail sales in a range of 2.0% to 3.0%…. The Company expects capital expenditures during fiscal 2014 to be between $90 million and $100 million.”
So the difference between the images Cracker Barrel strives to create, the reality of what it actually is, and the way it behaves, creates a shape contrast.
The Cracker Barrel story, however, is not just about one homeless guy, a corn muffin and a bad decision. The story is about the manifestations of an accelerating class struggle, that is driven by an insatiable quest for the accumulation of capital among a very few in American society.
It is about a growing number of homeless people who have been pushed out of their residences by disposition, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and the trauma of war, all in a never-ending quest for even more accumulation.
It is about an aging surplus worker population who is no longer viewed as worthy of reasonable social security. It is about an elite who is no longer even willing to support it’s own foot soldiers of Empire.
Perhaps more troubling, it is about a cultural war of position that is being waged to eradicate from our thoughts, and in many American cities make criminal, any act that mitigates the harsh consequences of this ruthless form of capital accumulation.
It is about the “haves” casting the “have-nots” as something alien and less than deserving of human compassion. It is about creating a hegemony that wallpapers over and excuses the consequences of this brutal quest for accumulation with a thin veneer of social Darwinism, which blames the victim.
After all, it was just a muffin.
Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
College of Justice and Safety
Eastern Kentucky University