Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. hopes that lightening up its menu will help fatten its bottom line.
The Lebanon, Tenn.-based restaurant chain is testing several new menu items that contain fewer calories than comparable items. The goal: to attract health-conscious diners who otherwise bypass the chain famous for its traditional fare of fried chicken, sugar-cured ham, cornbread and other Southern staples.
Cracker Barrel said the new menu category, called Wholesome Fixin's, will feature breakfast meals with fewer than 500 calories and lunch/dinner meals with fewer than 600 calories. Pamela Smith, a registered dietitian, nutritional author and consultant based in Orlando, Fla., developed the menu.
"We're currently testing the category with the expectation of adding it to the menu this summer," Sandra Cochran, the company's president and CEO, told analysts during an earnings call last week.
The company (NASDAQ: CBRL) said it would not offer further comment. Smith also declined to comment, calling it "premature."
But an analyst who visited Cracker Barrel locations in Richmond, Va., one of the markets where Wholesome Fixin's is being tested, recently wrote that new menu items include:
• A grilled catfish brushed with orange marmalade and a seasoned pecan crust with a serving of roasted vegetables on the side. It was listed as having 300 calories.
• A baked chicken breast dipped in a buttermilk-blended dressing and coated with seasoned, toasted cornflake crumbs. Its 360 reported calories include a side of roasted vegetables.
• A breakfast sandwich consisting of whole-wheat flatbread, eggs and Colby cheese, with fresh fruit on the side. It has 390 calories, according to the menu.
Prices ranged from $3.99 to $7.99 for breakfast plates and $6.99 to $9.49 for dinner plates, Davenport & Company analyst Jeff Omohundro wrote in a research note.
It's hard to tell how those items compare, calorie-wise, to others on Cracker Barrel's regular menu because the company does not disclose nutrition information. It is not required to do so, but that will change under a provision of the 2010 federal health care law that will take effect once final rules are adopted, possibly later this year.
Cracker Barrel said the new menu is in response to consumer research, which showed more patrons were eating at the restaurant less often because they felt its food "was too indulgent," Cochran said during a recent investor conference.
"Although we had healthy items on our menu, we needed to do a better job of pulling them together, highlighting it for our guests, and making it easy for them to find them," Cochran said at the Wells Fargo Retail & Restaurants Summit in October, according to a transcript.
It's part of the chain's efforts to boost sales at its 621 locations and broaden its appeal. The company also plans to begin selling Cracker Barrel-branded meats, glazes and other food items through grocery stores and other retailers, although a trademark-infringement lawsuit filed by Kraft could disrupt that plan.
Cracker Barrel becomes the latest restaurant chain to increase its healthy offerings in response to Americans' changing tastes, said Sarah Jane Bedwell, a registered dietician and nutritionist in Nashville.
"Over the past two or three years I've seen a lot of chain restaurants adding healthy options on their menus," she said, calling Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar one of the trend's leaders. "I think it's great because the more options you have, the more likely you are to eat healthier."
Analysts also praise the strategy for its potential financial benefits.
"We believe these menu introductions further demonstrate the company's commitment to improving menu offerings that meet guest needs at affordable prices, and could help benefit incremental traffic as the menu initiatives resonate with the more health-conscious consumers," Omohundro wrote in a December research note.
Another restaurant expert, though, said Cracker Barrel isn't being aggressive enough. "Cracker Barrel is doing the right thing, but too cautiously and too slowly," said Aaron Allen, a restaurant marketing consultant based in Orlando, Fla.
The chain should offer more healthy dishes and charge more for them, making it easier to later raise other menu prices and boost its average check size, he said. Cracker Barrel's average check size rose by 3.1 percent in the most recent quarter, driven by a 2.6 percent increase in menu prices.