An 80-year-old Indiana couple is getting some welcome attention as they finish a quest to eat at every Cracker Barrel in the nation. The Lebanon-based restaurant chain has 645 restaurants in 44 states. Ray and Wilma Yoder have been to all but one.
Every table at every Cracker Barrel has three things: a menu with the specials, a kerosene lamp and the “peg game.” The triangle shaped board has fifteen small holes with colorful golf tees in them — except for one, which remains empty. Like a one-man game of checkers, the goal is to empty the board by jumping one peg over the other. The game stumps most players, but not Ray Yoder.
He is eating an early dinner with his wife of 60 years at the first Cracker Barrel he ever visited near Opryland. As they wait for their meal, he plays the game on the table.
To win, he suggests starting with one of the corners.
In less than 45 seconds, the game's over. And because he is a showman, he ends a perfect game with the last peg in the same space that was originally empty.
"I’ve played for 25 years," he says. "I’d come in and I’d entertain myself here while waiting for the food."
It started in the 1970’s. Yoder was working for the RV company, traveling the country delivering campers while his wife Wilma cared for their children at their farm in Indiana.
Ray says the first visit to Cracker Barrel he remembers happened while he was staying at the Opryland Hotel for a convention. He walked next door for a meal.
From the rocking chairs on the front porch to the taste of the potato casserole, he says it felt like home. That was important, because he wasn’t home often.
In three decades, he says he traveled more than 5 million miles, often driving from the east to the west coast in the same week.
When he got lonely, he says he’d look for the familiar brown and yellow sign off the interstate.
After their kids were grown, Wilma joined him on the road, though she wasn’t quite as passionate about the project as her husband.
"I kind of left it up to him, and I followed him," she says. "I liked it. I’ve always liked to go along, so we just traveled together."
They hit most of the locations on the interstate while traveling for work. On their own time, they’d find Cracker Barrels off the beaten path. They didn’t just drive by either; they made sure to stop and buy something at every location, even if just a coffee or souvenir.
After half of his life on the road, Ray finally retired in 2003. But he kept the Cracker Barrel quest going. He seems to love experiences that can turn into a great story.
Like that time he was on The Price is Right — he says he was two numbers off from winning a new minivan. Or when he got to shake President Ronald Reagan’s hand at a convention in the 80’s or the fact that he was ranked as the third best table tennis player in Indiana in the 60’s. And the reason he was in Nashville this summer was to compete in a national checkers tournament.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Cracker Barrel found out about the Yoder’s. Spokeswoman Breeanna Straessle says Ray documented most of their visits.
"This is a traveling notebook, he has all the Cracker Barrels checked off that he’s been to," she says, holding up a binder full of maps, notes and receipts from 644 restaurant visits.
Straessle now talks to Ray every week. She tells him when a new restaurant is opening ahead of time so they can get on the road so they can be there for the ribbon cutting.
But even as the company has opened new locations, the Yoders have caught up.
There is just one more restaurant left in Oregon to complete the journey. Which they’re getting ready to visit.
"Maybe it’s time to stay home then," says Wilma with a laugh.
Maybe. But if it’s up to Wilma’s husband, maybe not.
"We probably won’t stay home much," says Ray. "Traveling’s always been in our blood and we just do it."
Really, Yoder isn't in a hurry to finish. He’s hoping by the time they make it to Oregon, Cracker Barrel will have other new restaurants to visit so they can get back on the road.