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Restaurants look to snag summer travelers

In an effort to attract more vacationing travelers hitting the highways this summer, Cracker Barrel, like a number of other chain operators, is rolling out menu items tailored to appeal to the interstate driver demographic.

Summer travel is a key business driver for many chains like Cracker Barrel, which said it derives about 40 percent of its traffic from customers on the road.

“The restaurant industry is very seasonal and demand is at a high in the summer time,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. “That’s when consumers are out about and on vacation.”

RELATED: Summer outlook: Restaurants expect strong summer employment

However, the recession has put the brakes on summer travel in the United States during the past few years, Riggs said. Travel for June, July and August of 2009 was down 4 percent from the same three-month period in 2008. And while the decline eased in 2010, travel was still off by 0.4 percent compared with 2009.

Because of the trend lines, Riggs said, many Americans will be “looking for the best value they can find for the money.”

Average checks in June, July and August of 2010 totaled $5.04 for quick service, $9.10 at family-style restaurants, and $13.50 at casual dining.

“I would imagine there will be a little … price increases this summer, but we won’t see those prices differ much,” Riggs said. “They might be up 2 percent. That would be the max.”

AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter projected 34.9 million Americans traveled over the Memorial Day weekend, including 30.9 million by car and 2.93 million by air.

The median spending per traveling household for the Memorial Day weekend was projected to be $692 — down 14 percent from 2010 when Americans spent $809. Food and beverage costs for 2011 Memorial Day weekend were expected to be the biggest share of the costs at 21 percent, followed by lodging at 19 percent and fuel at 17 percent, Hunter said.

Cracker Barrel said it is rolling out three new lunch and dinner meals it hopes will appeal to summer vacation traffic.

The Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain, which has five annual limited time offer promotions, is breaking out its latest deal just in time for summer travelers.

The new summer menu offerings, which range in price between $6.99 and $9.79, debuted Monday and will be available through Aug. 10. The items include:

• Grilled Chicken n' Summertime Vegetable Salad. Grilled chicken tenderloins on a bed of lettuce mixed with baby greens, served with grilled pimento cheese bread and country pepper vinaigrette dressing on the side.

• Kansas City BBQ Chicken. A half-chicken seasoned with a special rub and then slow roasted and glazed with spicy-sweet barbeque sauce and served with homemade potato salad and corn on the cob, plus made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins.

• Texas Beef Brisket. Slow-cooked hickory-smoked beef brisket, layered on thick-cut Texas toast with a side of smoky barbecue sauce, and served with Texas baked beans and thick cut steak fries and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins.

The chain also debuted a Multi-Berry Cobbler topped with two scoops of Blackberry Cobbler ice cream.

In addition, Cracker Barrel is continuing two spring breakfast specials, the “Six Grain n' Granola Pancake Breakfast” and the “Multigrain Pancake Breakfast.”

Tapping the traveler market is Cracker Barrel’s specialty and the chain pays for 1,500 billboards to get their message in front of drivers, chief executive Michael Woodhouse told attendees of the Goldman Sachs Lodging, Gaming, Restaurant and Leisure Conference at the Goldman Sachs Conference Center in New York.

Meanwhile, Woodhouse said Cracker Barrel, which operates 601 corporate locations in 42 states, is on schedule to open 11 new restaurants in 2011 and is aiming for 5 percent annual unit growth.

Woodhouse also noted Cracker Barrel has debuted five new prototype units this year that have reduced seating to 177 seats from 206 seats.

The chain faced commodity increases of 5 percent to 6 percent in the first quarter, Woodhouse said.

Contact Alan Snel at [email protected].

Follow him on Twitter: @AlanSnelNRN

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