Cracker Barrel

We didn't see this one coming: Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel recently announced it would be installing electric vehicle charging stations at 24 restaurants.

The first 12 such locations will dot The Tennessee Triangle: 425 miles of Interstates 40, 24, and 75 connecting Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. The second dozen will be near those cities and their locations will be announced later in 2011.
Charger installation begins this spring. Half of the 12 initial locations will feature fast-charging, 480-volt DC stations (referred to as "Level 3" chargers) while the balance will get 240-volt "Level 2" chargers. The Level 3 units could energize most EVs to 80-percent power in just 30 minutes. The Level 2 units would require three to five hours to deliver the same result.

According to Cracker Barrel spokesperson Julie Davis, "These test market stores will have clearly identified parking spaces for electric vehicles, just like we do for the disabled and RV drivers."

The price tag for the charger installations will be covered by The EV Project, a government-subsidized coalition formed to help the country transition to EVs. The electric juice won't be free, however. Ecotality will provide the Blink-branded chargers, which will accept credit cards that will be billed based on the kilowatt-hours of electricity that are used. Like any good retailer, Cracker Barrel will take a small percentage of the sales revenue.

"Our business plan doesn't depend on selling electricity to keep us in the black," said Davis.

Cracker Barrel

This odd-couple marriage brings together an icon of petrol-dependant Middle America with the EV-enamored green movement. Can truck-driving, RV-towing country folk find common ground with wheat-grass sipping urbane environmentalists? Will this action be recognized as marketing genius or reviled as a well-intentioned waste of taxpayer money?

Let's start with Cracker Barrel. Billboards announce the company's 597 stores in 42 states. Like McDonalds and Starbucks, travelers count on this chain for its clean restrooms and comfort food, not to mention its faux-antique, Americana-themed curios. While its public image may not scream, "innovation," Cracker Barrel pioneered the restaurant/retail store concept. In the company's early days, it even sold fuel, but got out of the business after the first oil embargo. It also just introduced the Cracker Barrel locator iPhone app.

But the question remains: Will the restaurant's new EV chargers be genuinely practical or just another thing Americans don't need -- like an extra portion of meatloaf or another Chinese-made knick-knack.

Currently, there are no mass-market EVs or plug-in hybrids on sale that can accept a DC fast charge in standard form. Not the Tesla Roadster. Not the Chevrolet Volt. Not even the WheeGo Life. The Nissan Leaf is one partial exception. The special hardware and plug receptacle that enables fast charging is a $700 option.

So the point of scattering fast-charging stations around Tennessee Interstates is what? With almost no vehicles capable of accepting a charge, those units will be useless eco-ornamentation for 2011 and years beyond.

Davis offered this explanation, "I can see our customers being very curious about the chargers and having their picture taken next to them. Right now it's about being a leader and being at the forefront of the trend."

The lower-power Level 2 chargers make more practical sense. The Volt and Leaf have a standardized J1772 plug so can this charger, as will the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV and future EV releases from BMW, Toyota, and Ford. While the Level 2 chargers can't fully charge an EV in 30 minutes like the Fast Charge units can, EVs could collect a few more electrons while their drivers finish their biscuits.

But further working against widespread use of these new public chargers, experts predict that early adopters will use their vehicles mostly for short-distance commuting and charge their vehicles at home. Tomorrow's EV drivers won't likely use these publicly accessible charging stations if they don't fit into their daily driving routine, which is expected to mostly involve urban and suburban commutes.

Which brings up the point that pure EVs simply aren't practical for longer trips, making the Cracker Barrel Interstate-friendly locations potentially inconvenient for urban EV drivers, and irrelevant to interstate trekkers.

"On average, about 40-percent of our guests are travelers," reported Davis.

That said, there are likely to be more EV drivers in Tennessee than the surrounding area, at least initially. Nashville is the U.S. headquarters for Nissan, so there will be a higher proportion of Leafs in that metro area's vehicular population. Tennessee also offers a $2,500 incentive for an EV purchase.

"You've got to start somewhere," said Davis.

When it comes to environmental issues, however, some believe that there is more to consider than the practical or commercial impact. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Chairman and CEO Michael A. Woodhouse said, "We like to think that our guests will be pleased to see Cracker Barrel taking an active role in exploring energy alternatives that are aimed at protecting the environment as well as strengthening our economy. Becoming a leader in The EV Project continues our tradition of striving to anticipate and meet our guests' expectation and, at the same time, allows for us to participate in a meaningful way in the nation's explorations of energy independence."

"Explorations" is the key word in Mr. Woodhouse's statement.