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Danny Evins, 76; founded Cracker Barrel Old Country chain

Pat Wellenbach/associated press/file 2010

Cracker Barrel has expanded north to South Portland, Maine.

NEW YORK - Danny Evins, who created Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a restaurant heavy on grits and nostalgia, expanded it into a $2 billion chain, and then fought a losing battle to discriminate against gay employees, died Saturday in Lebanon, Tenn. He was 76.

The cause was bladder cancer, said his former wife. Donna S. Evins.

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In 1969, Mr. Evins was an oil jobber, as middlemen between gasoline refiners and retailers are known, when he was hit by an idea that was to change his life and the American highway: a down-home restaurant with rocking chairs on the front porch, a potbellied stove and fireplace inside, and a checkerboard on every table. The food - including catfish, biscuits and gravy, and pineapple upside-down cake - would be ample, reasonably priced, and swiftly delivered.

The concept was carried out by more than 600 company-owned restaurants in 42 states, with annual sales of more than $2.4 billion. After going public in 1981, so it could expand beyond the Southeast, it was a stock market darling.

The idea of staking out real estate at exits on Interstate highways to establish a distinctive alternative to fast food - one that included gift shops featuring homemade jellies in old-fashioned glass jars - elicited raves from financial analysts, truck drivers, and children just glad to be out of the car.

Mr. Evins sent a January 1991 directive to all the company’s restaurants to fire employees “whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values.’’ Mr. Evins’s explanation for the edict was that gay people made customers in rural areas uncomfortable. As many as 16 openly or suspected gay employees were promptly fired.

Protests erupted at restaurants in dozens of cities and towns, boycotts were organized, and shareholders complained.

At a time when discrimination against gay people was not prohibited under the laws of most states or the federal government and many companies practiced it, Cracker Barrel’s action stood out for its sheer blatancy.

In March 1991, Mr. Evins apologized and said the policy had been rescinded.

Dannie Wood Evins, who would later change his first name to reflect the conventional spelling, was born in Smithville, Tenn., and grew up in nearby Lebanon. He attended military school and served three years in the Marine Corps, then worked for two years as an aide to US Representative Joseph L. Evins, an uncle.

After working in a bank in the late 1950s, he distributed gasoline to a small chain of Shell stations, but they were on back roads when the Interstate highway system was pulling most travelers off local roads. He decided to build a gas station off Interstate 40 with a restaurant and gift shop attached.

He borrowed $40,000 to build that first Cracker Barrel. It turned a profit the first month.

Mr. Evins next raised $100,000 by selling half the new enterprise to 10 local investors. By 1978, he was running 15 Cracker Barrels; by 1992 he was running 124.

Mr. Evins’s first two marriages ended in divorce. His wife, Margarita, died last year. He leaves his daughters, Daina Warren, Kate Page, and Betsy Jennings; his sons, Meacham and Joseph; and 13 grandchildren.

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