Mike Kellett has been on a treasure hunt for Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores for nearly four decades. He is 78 and fit as a fiddle, save some hunting-induced hearing loss that he discloses to me at the beginning of the first of many hours-long phone calls. “I look like I belong in ‘The Dukes of Hazard,’ ‘Andy Griffith,’ or ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” Mike says with the deepest, sweetest Southern drawl I’ve ever heard. But this is the description of a man who is, pretty indisputably, the best at what he does in the country. “I have only met two people who were just as good as I am,” he says in his endearing brand of charming silliness mixed with true humility.
Mike grew up on a mill hill in Enoree, SC, near my grandmother. His grandmother was my great-grandfather’s sister, so we are related. “I dug myself out of that. Three generations went into the cotton mills. I figured out before I was 15 that the answer was education. With no help at all, I put myself through college. But I can still slang and twang from the mill hill. Sometimes it comes in handy,” he chuckles.
While earning his degree in marketing, Mike was fascinated by old advertisements and dabbled in antiques. He met some guys on the flea market circuit who sold artifacts and décor to Cracker Barrel, and asked if they’d help him get an in. Mike’s contributions got bigger and bigger and bigger, and he was eventually selling more to Cracker Barrel than the rest of the other sellers combined. “I don’t work for Cracker Barrel,” Mike elucidates for me. “I’m still independent, but Cracker Barrel changed my life.”
As the largest restaurant brand consumer of historic artifacts in the world, Cracker Barrel mainly wants old metal signs from Mike. They will buy 100, 200, 300 of the same type of sign. But there are some parameters: No alcohol. No cleavage. “I have taken a few Coca-Cola pieces to them and they’ve said, ‘Nope — showin’ too much boob.’ We have to watch out for the mommas and the grandmommas.” Now, Mike says he is even more selective about what goes into Cracker Barrel than they are. “They might turn down two pieces a year out of the 10,000 I bring them,” he explains.
“They also want egg beaters, ads, toys, etc., but I don’t buy much three-dimensional stuff. You reach your weight limit before you fill up the truck!” Mike says. Flat-lying pieces are more space-efficient. Everything Mike picks for Cracker Barrel ends up in their warehouse in Lebanon, TN, where a team of skilled full-time designers sort, mix, and match the décor that will fill any one of their 660+ locations. There’s a fascinating three-month process before the walls are ready for patrons. Cracker Barrel’s design team researches the community’s heritage, sources the appropriate artifacts, cleans and readies them, and arranges them at the warehouse to create super-detailed designs of every square foot of the new location — inside and out.
In the late-1990s, Cracker Barrel was building a store a week, and Mike was busy. They’re still growing — have you ever seen a Cracker Barrel parking lot with plenty of empty spots? — but Mike has gotten some interesting assignments. In an effort to squash potential fire hazards, Cracker Barrel decided to swap out quilts that hung in their retail spaces with framed advertisements. They tapped Mike to fill those walls across the country.
Part of the magic of Cracker Barrel, besides the smell of buttery biscuits and finally hearing your name called from a creaky rocking chair, is stepping into a nostalgic time capsule … not only an era but of the specific place. “People walk in and see something on the wall and think, ‘Grandmomma had one just like that,’” Mike says. He has helped curate thousands of moments like that every day.
Nothing on the walls is for sale, but people ask all the time. They mostly want calendars from a year that means a lot of them. A heartwarming exception to this, Mike tells me, is photos of actual relatives. A Florida woman stopped in her tracks when she noticed a photo of her father hanging on a Cracker Barrel wall. She didn’t have a physical photo of her father, but they confirmed with another family member that was him. A manager went up the chain of command and they approved a plan to let the woman leave with the original.
I asked about his tactics and tricks. How on earth does he find enough stuff to keep up with a client this big? He scours yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, and places he learns about through word-of-mouth. He’s honed his craft of finding. “We have raked this country of old metal signs. They’re getting harder and harder to find. A piece that was $50 five years ago is now $350,” Mike says. “They weren’t faking as much 30 years ago, but now they’re faking everything, and I have to know what’s real.”
New England is a prime picking location, for example, but Mike kept hitting frustrating dead-ends. “No deal here,” or “Nope, not gonna sell you anything,” people kept telling him. He thinks this is because how he sounds and looks doesn’t match the content and quality of the deal. “I don’t know what you call that … prejudice, maybe. But it wasn’t profitable to pick there.”
Ohio and Indiana are some of the best places to pick. “When we settled this country, a lot of people moved to the Midwest. In places like Bonneville Salt Flats, they built thriving companies with warehouses, and I still come to those warehouses today. “You can’t pick in downtown Charleston,” Mike adds. “They don’t have old mayonnaise jars or rusty signs, they just have expensive Civil War stuff.”
In addition to selling to Cracker Barrel, Mike is also one of the Hollywood film industry’s most trusted sources. He sells to movie producers and movie prop companies who are aiming to create a certain era or a specific scene. “If the movie turns into a hit, I can go back and buy the movie paraphernalia from them and they will authenticate the piece.” His most prized re-picked item? A sign from The Whistle Stop Cafe in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.
“There are certain things I’m not gonna tell ya. I’ve developed ways to pick that are unheard of. I won’t tell anyone until I am not working,” Mike says, ending our last conversation when his wife reminds him that he’s got a delivery to make. Another store to fill. More treasure to uncover from under a pile of dust to overlooking your dinner table.
Store and warehouse photos courtesy of Cracker Barrel. Photos of Mike are from his wife.
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