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Cracker Barrel healthful menu drives 1Q sales

Cracker Barrel healthful menu drives 1Q sales

Partial federal government shutdown slowed travel-related visits to chain

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. said this week it is seeing positive response to its new Wholesome Fixin’s menu, for which it shifted marketing dollars into its Nov. 1-ended first quarter and promoted in a brand-building initiative.

The Lebanon, Tenn.-based company, which in late August added 10 health-oriented offerings across its breakfast, lunch and dinner dayparts, moved full-year marketing dollars into the first quarter to ramp up promotion of the new Wholesome Fixin’s category.

The menu includes items such as multi-grain fresh toast with fruit or yogurt sauce, a grilled chicken and fresh vegetable salad and pecan-crusted catfish. The menu aims to provide complete meals for less than 600 calories.

“We do believe that it is driving the perceptions that we had wanted in terms of healthy options … and that we will be able to build on this as we move forward,” Sandra Cochran, Cracker Barrel’s president and chief executive, told analysts in a Tuesday earnings call.

Cochran said Cracker Barrel customers “responded positively” to the Wholesome Fixin’s additions. “We’ve seen improvements in survey scores measuring guest attitudes about the brand, including topics like ‘offers appealing healthy options,’ uses fresh ingredients’ and ‘is a restaurant I can trust,’” she said.

For the first quarter, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store posted a profit of $27.2 million, or $1.14 per share, up from $23.2 million, or 97 cents per share, in the same prior-year quarter. Revenue rose 3 percent to $649.1 million.

Same-store sales at restaurants rose 2.8 percent in the quarter and same-store sales from the retail section of the units increased 2.5 percent. Cracker Barrel’s average check climbed 2.9 percent, and the average menu price increased about 2.5 percent, the company reported.

The company said sales were negatively impacted by the partial shutdown of the federal government in October. The 16-day shutdown had a negative impact of between 20 and 30 basis points for the quarter, Cracker Barrel said. Cochran noted that 40 percent of Cracker Barrel’s business is related to travel, and the shutdown came during the fall break.

“The shutdown, for us, not only affected us in the areas where people maybe weren't working, but perhaps, more importantly, it affected the travel occasion,” she said, citing a unit in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., at the base of the Smoky Mountain National Park, which was closed because of the shutdown.

Cracker Barrel maintained its guidance of full-year earnings per share of between $5.60 and $5.80 and revenue of between $2.7 and $2.75 billion. It predicted second-quarter earnings of between $1.50 and $1.60 per share, but advised that the quarterly forecast did not include expenses related to the third consecutive proxy contest with activist investor Sardar Biglari, who is fighting for board seats at the family-dining company.

Christopher O’Cull, a securities analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc., said in a research note that Cracker Barrel’s fiscal 2014 earnings growth will come “primarily from less interest expense and [a] more benign commodity outlook.”

Lawrence Hyatt, Cracker Barrel’s chief financial officer, said the company expected commodity cost comparisons to be “marginally positive” for the full year. He said the company expected price increases in the range of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent in fiscal 2014.

O’Cull also noted that “it appears the lion's share of any restaurant profit increase will come from menu pricing and less advertising expense as the company shifted more marketing dollars to fiscal 1Q to support the launch of the ‘Wholesome Fixin's’ menu.”

Cracker Barrel operates 625 restaurant-retail units in 42 states.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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