Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. regained the top spot among full-service Family-Dining restaurants in the 2016 Consumer Picks survey. The chain succeeded First Watch, which was ranked No. 1 in Family Dining in 2015.
The Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain returned to the top Family-Dining spot after being edged out last year for the first time in the six years of the survey, said Dennis Lombardi, consultant for the WD Partners Consumer Picks survey and president of Insight Dynamics LLC.
This year, University Park, Fla.-based First Watch Restaurants Inc. moved down to the second-place position, and Beaverton, Ore.-based Shari’s Café & Pies — which statistically has a much smaller base — moved up.
“Shari’s made a material improvement, going from 12th out of 16 last year to third out of 16 this year,” Lombardi said. “In addition to having the sub category high score in Menu Variety, it materially improved its scores in a number of other attributes.”
Cracker Barrel took the top spot in four of 10 surveyed attributes: Reputation, Service, Cleanliness and Atmosphere.
Christopher A. Ciavarra, Cracker Barrel’s senior vice president of marketing told NRN that the brand is always looking for ways to enhance all four of those areas to contribute to its overall top ranking.
“We’ve got a pretty clear idea of who we are and the kind of experience we are trying to create,” Ciavarra said.
Positioned along major arterials in 42 states, Cracker Barrel has made itself the home away from home for travelers and, with its Old Country Store gift shops, offers something of a quick vacation to a more nostalgic time. That distinguished atmosphere extends to the lines of wooden rocking chairs on the front porch of Cracker Barrel units. And, of course, they are for sale.
Once guests are on the property, Ciavarra said, “we have pretty clear standards. We know when they come up on the front porch, what it should look like. And then through the gift shop, what that should look like.”
The retail store gives the brand a unique twist over other Family-Dining competitors. “We’re an Old Country Store,” he said. “The gift shop does a lot of that work for us at the end of the day.”
The retail shop offers the chain, which is only closed on Christmas Day, an opportunity to give guests a two-fer: a dual shopping and dining experience. And the rotating merchandise is a way to make each visit fresh, Ciavarra added.
“It creates a sense of change with guests for new and interesting things and serves as a waiting room for those guests whose names are on the waiting list,” he said.
The retail shop also is lucrative. “We generate more than $420 a square foot in that space,” he said. “Most small retailers would be delighted with those kind of sales. But, for us, it’s an important part of the experience.”
In the restaurant space, bathrooms are critical, Ciavarra said. And that point is especially important for Cracker Barrel, which because of its roadside locations, gets a higher percentage of travelers than many competitors.
“We source about 30 to 35 percent of our guests from traveling,” Ciavarra said, explaining on of the brand’s chief marketing pushes: billboards. “For us, if the customers are stepping off the road and they are looking for a place to eat but also a bathroom.”
In addition to spic-and-span restrooms, the company trains cleanliness at every employee position, he said. “Every position has cleanliness tied to it in some way, be it server, back-up cook, grill cook, a dishwasher,” he said. “They all have cleanliness standards tied to them.”
Each employee is trained with a “clean as you go” model throughout their shift, he added. On top of what the store day and evening teams do toward cleanliness, each restaurant has a night maintenance who does additional cleaning beyond what the store operating teams have done.
Supporting the military, employee growth
If any brand in the restaurant space embraces patriotism more than Cracker Barrel, it would be hard to find.
The company works with a number of military-based causes and, because of its Tennessee roots, taps into country music like few other restaurant concepts can do. Both enhance the brand’s red-white-and-blue reputation.
“Cracker has a lot of commitment to military families,” Ciavarra said.
“For a long time, our guests have associated us with patriotism, America and, to a degree, military. It’s also a place of family bonding, so military families are quite important to us. We have a number of past service people on our teams. Over the course of time, we invest in supporting that cause.”
The company last year, for example, continued its Annual Four-Star Salute, an online auction where proceeds benefit the United Services Organizations, or USO, and Disabled American Veterans.
The company bridged its patriotism and music reputations last year by tying into a program with the Academy of Country Music that featured a life-size checkers board game with country artists to raise money for philanthropic groups.
“This can be a very lifestyle-driven brand,” Ciavarra said.
“We use music as a way to connect culturally with different groups. For example, to improve our reputation with the younger market we target artists that can help build affinity with them.”
This past fall, Cracker Barrel worked older artists as well as with more teen-focused singers such as the vocal group Pentatonix and singer-songwriter Rachel Platten, who had the pop hits “Fight Song” and “Stand by You.”
Cracker Barrel has a music catalog program that at any one time will include between five and eight artists who provide content or music packaging that is exclusive to the brand.
“We recognize music is important to us,” Ciavarra said. “It is important to our guests. It’s just one of those nice intersection points.”
The full-service chain has a mission stated as: “Pleasing People.” And that is the core of the service model.
“It’s a pretty straightforward mission,” Ciavarra said. “If you speak to hourlies, they know that.
They sense the tone and the general rules around which we operate: general respect. We have a pretty clear understanding about our brand. We want to create a home away from home where our guests are treated like family.”
Employees in the restaurants wear stars on their aprons that reflect where they stand in Cracker Barrel’s Personal Achievement Responsibility, or PAR, program, distinguishing how far they have advanced.
“If you can continue to take on increasing skills and increasing skills and you demonstrate different behaviors, you can increase in pay and benefits. You can move up in the organization.”
The brand’s e-learning program has a series of modules to the levels, that go up to PAR 4.
In addition, some service secrets are less based on e-learning than on simple, tried-and-true techniques such as a medallion program.
“That’s a literal medallion that one shift leader hands over to another person if someone at the front of the house has to leave for floor,” Ciavarra said, assuring that someone is always in charge.
The company also last year rolled out a new dining-room management technology system to the system. “We think that allows us to better manage the floor, and we think will allow us future capabilities that we’re excited to unlock,” he said.
Cracker Barrel has made many advances in the areas of Atmosphere, Cleanliness, Reputation and Service, but Ciavarra said the company continues to make changes.
“The consumer space is pretty dynamic and changing quickly,” he said. “And we are working hard to evolve and meet that changing world while preserving the pieces that we think remain important to our guests and future guests.”
One area the company has been working on is the Hispanic customer demographic, Ciavarra said, which ranges from catering retail offerings in the gift shop to aiming marketing the group.
The company is also looking at off-premise menu offerings as well, he said.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store owns and operates 635 locations in 42 states.