Cracker Barrel’s culture is rooted in heritage, but that doesn’t mean tradition can’t be reimagined.
The commitment to innovation was on full display in 2020 as the 663-unit brand released a revamped dinner menu, diversified its family meal deals, and introduced alcohol for the first time in its 51-year history.
Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, vice president of culinary and menu strategy, says Cracker Barrel is always listening to consumers, examining the macro environment, understanding competitors, and taking notice of inspirational chefs at independents. The chain keeps an eye on all those matters, and then develops products. Once all the checkpoints are met at the home office, the food heads toward an operational test where operators get their hands on new offerings, test them, and receive feedback from guests.
That process is exactly how alcohol made its way to Cracker Barrel. Consumers said they wanted options for beer and wine, especially on weekend dinner occasions. Spillyards-Schaefer says the chain is also aware guests may sometimes dine at another restaurant simply because they don’t have alcoholic offerings. So with the new program, a veto vote is eliminated, and guests are provided with an enhanced experience.
CEO Sandy Cochran said in December alcohol proved to be incremental in Q1 and mixed 1 percent. At that point, the program was offered in 250 stores, but Cracker Barrel projects it will roll out to roughly 600 by the end of the fiscal calendar.
Wine options include Gambino Sparkling Wine, Sutter Home Moscato, Sutter Home Chardonnay, Sutter Home Merlot, and Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, while the beer menu features Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Angry Orchard Cider, and Twisted Tea.
The favorite so far has been the Orange and Strawberry Mimosa, which customers have been drinking all day, not just the morning daypart.
“I think because people eat breakfast with us all day, and that’s a really important part of our brand, they might be eating pancakes at dinner, but the idea of combining those with a mimosa is delicious, right?” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “The other thing we’ll see is they might be eating Southern Fried Chicken, and what’s better than champagne and fried chicken? And so they’ll have an Orange Mimosa with a Southern Fried Chicken, and we know that our guests like that little cup of sweet, indulgent kind of drink. And so that seems to be fitting the bill for them.”
The introduction of alcohol coincided with an evolution of the dinner menu that called for simplicity and innovation. For example, Cracker Barrel previously had a larger and smaller portion size for its Chicken and Dumplings—one with two sides, and the other with three sides. Spillyards-Schaefer says it was difficult for customers to understand the difference and for cooks to remember correct portion sizes. So the brand aligned portion sizes and gave customers a choice of either two or three sides.
“Something that sounds as simple as that actually eases execution tremendously in our back-of-house,” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “… There’s never been a more important time than COVID—and all of the challenges that it brings—to keep a high level of execution in our restaurants.”
Cracker Barrel also removed low-performing items across the menu to make room for new dinner offerings that guests would enjoy even more, like the Chicken Pot Pie, Maple Bacon Grilled Chicken, Country Fried Pork Chops, Pot Roast Supper, and Barrel-Cut Sugar Ham.
Spillyards-Schaefer says COVID did slow Cracker Barrel’s major launch of the revamped dinner menu, but she adds it pushed the brand to streamline the process and bring innovation to the market faster than it ever has before. It’s a new strategy Cracker Barrel will maintain coming out of the pandemic.
“Chicken Pot Pie had a really great guest response, both in sales performance, but also in how they loved the item,” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “It’s just one of those natural fits for Cracker Barrel—it looks beautiful on TV, it eats really well, and people absolutely loved it. And that barrel cut ham, it’s an inch thick, 24-ounce ham steak, and so that thing going through the dining room is pretty impressive, and it’s one of those eye catchers.”
Being a family-oriented restaurant, Cracker Barrel made sure not to exclude children from the innovation. The company’s new Kid’s Menu comprises Mini Confetti Pancakes, Lil’ Barrel Cheeseburgers, Dirt Cup Dessert, and a Milk n’ Cookies Straw. Spillyards-Schaefer says the standouts have been the pancakes—filled with fruity cereal and served with syrup and butter— and the Dirt Cup, which mixes layers of chocolate pudding with chocolate cookie crumbles and gummy worms.
To test those products, Cracker Barrel brought both parents and children into qualitative focus groups. The brand learned kids enjoy interactive and captivating presentations. As a result, kids are provided with smaller, user-friendly utensils, and pancake syrup is served in ramekins so little guests can dip their food. The chain balanced their research with the wishes of parents. Milk is the best example; parents want their kids to drink milk, so to entice the kids, Cracker Barrel created a milk straw that has cookies and cream flavor beads in it.
“You can’t can’t wear your feelings on your sleeve when you talk to kids about what they like and don’t like right,” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “They’re super honest. But it was really fun to watch them actually eat the food and talk about the food.”
Cracker Barrel’s menu transformation extended beyond the four walls as well. For years, the brand was known for its large, Heat n’ Serve meals offered during the holidays. Those typically serve eight to 10 guests, but with COVID infiltrating the U.S., the brand knew it needed to help consumers in smaller gatherings. So Cracker Barrel introduced new meals that serve up to six guests, such as the Thanksgiving Heat n’ Serve Family Dinner that includes turkey breast, dressing, gravy, cranberry relish, rolls, and two sides.
Along with a variety of serving sizes, Cracker Barrel is also moving forward with a wider range of proteins in its family meal deal program. The chain tested a Prime Rib Heat n’ Serve meal that feeds four to six people. Spillyards-Schaefer says the product was “extremely popular” and that it’ll likely be part of a holiday offer sometime soon.
“Sometimes we need completely new innovation and the Prime Rib Heat n’ Serve is a great example of that,” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “That’s not available in our stores. Cracker Barrel is all about traditions, and what’s more traditional at a holiday than prime rib? So for us to be able to deliver a great item like that, that’s only off-premise was a really fantastic thing that drove business and drove sales and we think drove incrementality to the holiday occasion, which is fantastic.”
Spillyards-Schaefer says the restaurant will finish rolling out its new dinner menu later this year. There’s one final phase that will involve taking Cracker Barrel favorites like the Hash Brown Casserole, Southern Fried Chicken, and Mac and Cheese and inserting a “little twist.” Those items are currently in development and will be tested and sent to market shortly after. Additionally, Cracker Barrel is investing in catering occasions by testing Meatloaf Sliders, which is meatloaf with cheese, grilled onions, and caramelized ketchup on a bun. It’s served with a side of cobbler.
Spillyards-Schaefer says consumers can always expect Cracker Barrel to meet their needs. She recalls working as a chef in fine dining early in her career where she touched a couple of restaurants. Now she’s touching guests at more than 600 stores across the country, and the experience couldn’t be more rewarding.
“I love this brand,” Spillyards-Schaefer says. “I genuinely love what Cracker Barrel brings to the table and the experience that we give—developing food that meets our guests needs, but still delights them in new ways because they still want the things they’ve been enjoying in Cracker Barrel for 50 years. But they also want new things. And so being able to balance that and bring that to market for this brand is truly a joy.”