Some of the world’s most important inventions have been accidental: Just look at Penicillin, plastic, vulcanized rubber and Cracker Barrel’s Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake.

Okay. Maybe creating a dessert isn’t quite on par with discovering lifesaving antibiotics, but—as anyone who has ever tussled over a marzipan flower at a childhood birthday party knows—cake can be serious business.

Making the Most of a Classic

In 1997, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s product development team was brainstorming ways to further incorporate Coca-Cola into their menu. “Coke has been with us as long as we’ve been in business,” enthuses Susan Gillituk, a project manager for the almost 44-year-old restaurant chain. “They’ve always been a great partner.”

Coke-based recipes for savory dishes like crock pot stews and roasts are not that unusual, especially in the South. And Cracker Barrel’s hub is in Lebanon, Tenn., where the company was first established by oil jobber Dan Evins to lure folks off the interstate to his family’s gas station with the promise of homeyness and a decent meal. But a Coca-Cola-based dessert is less expected. So, when the team happened upon and tested a Coca-Cola cake recipe, they quickly realized that it would make a tasty, unique addition to their existing offerings.

At that time, the company was relying somewhat on “speed scratch” recipes, which means that they hired outside companies to create the basis for certain dishes and then finished the cooking or baking in their own restaurant kitchens. So Cracker Barrel commissioned a manufacturer to create batter samples.

But when the batter arrived and they baked it, something strange happened: “We said, ‘Oh my gosh!  This doesn’t look anything like the one we made,’” recalls Gillituk about this new darker, richer and denser incarnation. “We decided to taste it anyway and we loved it!  In fact, we started marching pieces of cake up and down the hallways, asking for opinions, and everyone loved it.”

Original Cracker Barrel Store, Lebanon TN

Original Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

In fact, the outside company had made a mathematical error when scaling up the recipe, more than doubling the cocoa.  And, just like that, Cracker Barrel’s Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake was born.  “The error they made was so delicious that we didn’t want to change a thing,” raves Gillituk. The recipe remains a protected secret, but it does include real Coke — not Coke syrup — poured from 2-liter bottles.

Originally, the dessert was offered for limited periods and, during off times, fans would write letters and call to request it. Then, in 2009, as a 40th anniversary special, the company made the Coca-Cola Cake available for the entire year (along with a special Black Cherry Coke in a collectable 22-ounce contoured glass). The dessert did so well, that it became a permanent fixture on the menu.

Millions of Slices

Last year, Cracker Barrel purchased enough batter to make 2,286,432 pieces of Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake for their 622 restaurants in 42 states.  (With advance notice, customers can order entire Coca-Cola Cakes instead of single slices too, an option that the company considered discontinuing but kept amidst protests from the individual restaurants who saw demand.)

Clearly, this now signature cake went over well with customers from the beginning.  “There was a time when the mention of Cracker Barrel immediately made people think of breakfast,” says Gillituk. “Today people think of the Coca-Cola Cake.”