Off-premises and customer service, value and new offerings—Cracker Barrel is finding its footing in a new era.

The rise in off-premises dining catalyzed sales across casual dining in 2018. But there was always a question of what stage 2 would look like when the first incremental surge subsided. Unlike many limited-service brands, sit-down restaurants face a far more disruptive model. Beyond how it affects throughput and a casual brand’s point-of-sale setup (think multiple tablets in the back), chains had to worry about the front-of-the-house shakeup as well. Red Robin witnessed this issue, as hosts were suddenly tasked with a whole new set of issues. It stuffed wait times at the door, especially during peak hours, and led to walkaways increasing some 85 percent, year-over-year. In the second quarter, the burger brand estimated that 75 percent of its loss in dine-in traffic came during peak hours as total ticket times out of the kitchen increased about a minute on average.

Striking this balance between to-go and four-wall service is challenging Cracker Barrel as well. The 658-unit brand delivered a solid, Wall Street-busting first quarter Tuesday, but admitted many of its targeted improvements are of the long-term variety, and that its short-term outlook remains cautious. A “high-teens” jump in off-premises sales has adjusted some of Cracker Barrel’s core execution.

The chain posted same-store sales gains of 1.4 percent in Q1, which topped the Consensus Metrix forecast of 0.8 percent declines. Cracker Barrel grew earnings 2 percent to $1.96 per share on revenue of $735.5 million. Experts estimated $1.91 on $717 million. The news sent shares up about 5 percent on the stock market Tuesday.

In this sales increase, however, Cracker Barrel saw its traffic drop 1.6 percent, year-over-year. Average check upped 3 percent and comparable retail sales, lifted by a strong Halloween and harvest-themed push, boosted 4.3 percent.

The traffic decline is a solid improvement from last quarter, but the trend remains a red one.

  • Q1 2019: –1.6 percent
  • Q4 2018: –3.5 percent
  • Q3 2018: –1.3 percent
  • Q2 2018: –0.9 percent
  • Q1 2018: –1.8 percent
  • Q4 2017: –1.8 percent
  • Q3 2017: –2.1 percent
  • Q2 2017: –2.1 percent
  • Q1 2017: –1.7 percent

Like Red Robin, Cracker Barrel said off-premises forced the chain to rethink some of its staffing and operational procedures. On the guest experience side, the chain has witnessed some inconsistency lately, chief executive officer Sandy Cochran said during Tuesday’s conference call.

“You might not have the same great experience as you were expecting each time you visited in every store on every shift,” she said. “What we’ve started by focusing on our host. That was an area that we had seen some deterioration. Potentially, some of that was the emphasis on our off-prem and the pressure that the off-premise business puts on the host position. We focus there and we’re seeing improvements there.”

“We shifted toward focusing on the attentiveness of our servers,” Cochran added. “That’s certainly an area that’s important and really almost particularly important in the holiday season when you’re coming to celebrate maybe with your family. So, our field leadership teams are understanding the problem better. They are working through the guest journey to understand … but I am optimistic with the plans and the progress that I think we’re making.”

Off-premise isn’t going to slow down (not even close)

The second quarter is really the key off-premises period for Cracker Barrel due to its Heat n’ Serve holiday occasions. Cochran said the company is still reviewing a stellar Thanksgiving performance as it prepares for the Christmas boom.

“Our competitors are doing a very aggressive job of trying to both, in some cases, introduce value, in some cases remind people by bringing back old favorites and doing it with a lot of TV. So we are continuing to operate in an environment that we think is focused on value and highly competitive.” — Sandy Cochran, Cracker Barrel CEO.

This past quarter, off-premises increased more than 100 basis points as a percentage of sales compared to the prior year. Cracker Barrel added several catering sales managers to key markets to bring its total to nearly 15. There are currently about 180 catering vans in more than 25 markets.

“We’ll continue to leverage our catering sales managers and our expanded catering delivery, and in the second quarter we’ll be expanding our third party delivery,” Cochran said.

Another intriguing note is the impending arrival of bone-in fried chicken. The signature rollout is live in about 200 stores and is scheduled to complete by summer.

Cochran noted, “whole chains have been built on the idea that bone-in fried chicken is a terrific protein for to-go.”

“So in addition to the offering and the popularity that it’s having with our dine-in guests, we anticipate it also being a very popular offering on the off-premises side and are looking at how to design offers and containers to carry the fried chicken and highlight it,” Cochran said.

The value conversation thickens

In Q4, Cochran said Cracker Barrel saw a decline in guest experience metrics. Part of that had to do with the inconsistent service element, and another part was related to coming up short in value positioning. Cracker Barrel simply wasn’t delivering “cravable food offerings,” at the rate needed. This was especially troublesome with lighter users.

“Our competitors are doing a very aggressive job of trying to both, in some cases, introduce value, in some cases remind people by bringing back old favorites and doing it with a lot of TV,” Cochran said. “So we are continuing to operate in an environment that we think is focused on value and highly competitive.”

Cracker Barrel pivoted in Q2 away from using TV to emphasize everyday value, Cochran said. It’s currently highlighting Country Fried Turkey topped with pan gravy and served with green bean casserole and cranberry relish. She added this is also typically the quarter where guests are willing to spend a bit more and be more indulgent in their choices.

At the same time, however, Cracker Barrel continues to propel its Daily Delights platform, which reinforces everyday value as a significant part of its messaging strategy inside and outside its restaurants, Don Hoffman, senior vice president of marketing, said.

The platform offers consistent value and price certainty across all dining occasions. Cracker Barrel tested “Daily Delights” during fiscal 2018 before implementing it systemwide in August. It showcases Sunrise Specials at breakfast, Weekday Lunch Specials, and the Country Dinner Plates. The overall premise is that guests can count on three specific price points—$4.99, $5.99, and $7.99 for the three dayparts, respectively.

“We’re going to continue to communicate everyday value through in-store marketing support, our outlook program, emails, social as well as periodic television advertising,” Hoffman said. “And we’re also going to be continuing to support or evaluate optimal price point offerings to stay competitive within the category and deliver a fair value to the guests.”

Cochran said an increased focus on stressing everyday value is key to improving traffic. The chain introduced new news to the platform this quarter by featuring its biscuit in fresh ways like Biscuit French Toast and Biscuit Beignets. “Our new Biscuit offerings reminded guests of what they love while also providing the variety that they seek,” Cochran said. That combination of classic flavors, reenergized, with a value message, is going to be a staple of Cracker Barrel’s menu strategy.

It aired national TV media to support the launch, and cross-promoted in its retail shop by highlighting biscuit-related products.

Cochran added that Crafted Coffee has been a big boon to date as well.

Service starts the change

“For fiscal 2019, we’re prioritizing a focus on the guest and employee experience to improve traffic and sales. We’ve aligned the organization on action steps based around our learnings. We’ve increased visibility around the guest experience and the driving factors and our operations leadership has developed and begun implementing targeted action plans to drive improvement,” Cochran said.

One of the areas Cracker Barrel improved this past quarter, Cochran said, was getting its restaurants staffed—no easy task in today’s labor climate. She said this has set the chain up to handle the holiday volume and to complete training ahead of the rush.

“We’ve got a number of plans to improve our training, which was already a strength for us, but we’re looking at our manager training, our district manager training as well as our hourly training and how to better incorporate technology we will be rolling that out sort of later in the year after we get through the holidays,” she said.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Cracker Barrel