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Couple travels the country 1 Cracker Barrel at a time

April 8, 2018

SARALAND, Ala. (AP) — It’s probably safe to say that no one loves Cracker Barrel Country Store as much as Ray and Wilma Yoder do. Even when they’re not visiting brand-new restaurants when they open, as they did recently at an early morning ribbon-cutting celebration in Saraland, Alabama, they often eat at Cracker Barrel, where they enjoy some of their favorite dishes, including blueberry pancakes, meatloaf and grilled chicken salads.

Over the past few decades, the Yoders have become bona fide celebrities. They pose for photos with fans; they’re on a first-name basis with the company’s leadership.

Since Ray visited the restaurant for the first time in Nashville in 1978, he has traveled some 5 million miles to visit 651 locations in 45 states, including Alabama, where the state’s 31st location, in Saraland, officially opens April 2.

He spent nearly 30 years driving Coachmen recreational vehicles from the manufacturer in Indiana to dealerships all over the United States, which was “a way to see the country and get paid to do it,” he says.

Along the way, he and his driving partner — who, sadly, is now in a nursing home and can no longer travel — continued to stop and eat at Cracker Barrel restaurants, known for their country-style cooking and locations near interstate exits. They would check each one off on the maps that used to be provided at the checkout counter.

“We had a lot of fun,” Ray says of his friend, who used to trick people listening on the CB radio into thinking he was Kenny Rogers. “He could sing just like him.”

Since Ray retired in 2003, his wife of 61 years, Wilma, has been beside him as they visited every Cracker Barrel in the country. Instead of RVs, Ray now drives his comfortable Mercury Marquis. And thanks to the coupons they receive from the company’s corporate headquarters in Lebanon, Tennessee, the Yoders usually don’t pay for their meals (but they always insist on leaving generous tips).

When they walk into a Cracker Barrel, managers recognize them immediately. Last August, when Ray turned 81, the company threw a celebration in Tualatin, Oregon, that he says was “the best birthday party I ever had.” Ray and Wilma each received a personalized apron with four stars, signifying the highest level of experience for a Cracker Barrel employee, as well as a set of rocking chairs like the ones sold on the restaurant’s front porch and other “swag” from the store.

The next day, Ray and Wilma were guests on “The Steve Harvey Show,” where they were asked how many times they’ve eaten at Cracker Barrel in one day. Ray’s answer was eight. “I told him you just don’t eat too much at the first one,” he says. “He got a kick out of that.”

Both Ray and Wilma grew up in Indiana, “in the heart of Amish country,” he says. Both of them have always loved to travel, and Wilma says they made their first trip to Florida in 1956, the year they were married.

Their home is still in Goshen, Indiana, where they live on a farm that’s now less than half of its former 80-acre size. During the winter, they stay at their vacation home in Sarasota, Florida, The couple has four children and eight grandchildren.

In 2015, Ray almost lost Wilma when she suffered a brain aneurysm while driving on their way back to Indiana. Luckily, she was on a ramp at a rest stop, and they were close to Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida, Wilma had to learn to walk again and has made a recovery that’s nothing short of miraculous. They were on the road again less than a year later.

Though he’s good-natured and gregarious, Ray has a competitive streak, too. He has played on championship softball and table tennis teams in his home state, and he’s a serious checkers player who likes to compete against professionals. “That’s where you learn,” he says. “And it keeps your mind sharp.” He plans to attend the national checkers championship in Las Vegas in September.

After they finished their Sunrise Sampler breakfasts Friday in Saraland, Ray, wearing his trademark Mississippi gambler-style cowboy hat, thanked his waitress on her first day on the job. “You can’t find a better place to work, and better people,” he said. “Or better food!”

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Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews

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