April 08, 2021

Innovating during the pandemic: Cracker Barrel, tradition transformed

Cracker Barrel began selling beer and wine for the first time in its 50-year history. Mimosas quickly became a beverage menu favorite.

For more than 50 years, Cracker Barrel’s combination of downhome cooking and unique retail component was ahead of its time in creating an environmentally “immersive” dining experience. This past year has looked a little different.

Which menu trends were most popular and promise to stay that way? Download our 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report

Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, vice president of culinary and menu strategy, walks through the company’s menu innovation during COVID-19. Cracker Barrel operates more than 660 locations in 45 states.

It’s been a year since the start of the pandemic. How did Cracker Barrel respond?
This past year changed our guests’ needs and how we deliver our unique Cracker Barrel experience to them. We took the opportunity to continue initiatives that were already underway and in test, including a phased revamp of our Dinner Menu, a new Kid’s Menu, and offering beer and wine.

In response to on-premises dining restrictions, we streamlined our menus, reducing approximately 20% of our menu items. This helped our employees optimize the guest experience, most often off-premises, during the past year.

We understood the dynamics of homebound patrons’ needs and saw tremendous success with items such as Family Meal Baskets (a selection of a main protein, two sides and biscuits for a family of four), which were packed hot and ready to serve and offered at a value price that our guests really appreciated.

Cracker Barrel is a very popular spot for families celebrating holidays, whether in one of our restaurants or at home. Understanding that gatherings trended smaller during the pandemic, we offered our popular Heat n’ Serve holiday meals in a smaller size. We also recently developed and launched new Boxed Meals in our catering lineup, which are individually packaged. We believe this format will be preferred over buffet-style catering as we transition back to larger gatherings.

Tell us about new ways of working that were implemented to gain customer and community attention?
We found new ways to speed our processes and bring new products to market faster than before. We launched a new website, mobile app and digital Store to give guests a streamlined digital experience with our brand. Now it’s easier to order to-go, manage in-store experiences with an online waitlist, shop retail online and more.

We also announced new third-party delivery partnerships with brands like DoorDash. We established third-party partnerships prior to the pandemic, but ensuring guests knew they could find Cracker Barrel on their preferred delivery app was critical to our success. Consumer demand for delivery is likely to continue even in the post-pandemic climate.

We also updated our popular billboards across the country to promote curbside pickup and delivery, which reminded guests that they could still enjoy our homestyle favorites even if local guidelines limited indoor dining.

What items are guest favorites during the pandemic and what new items have people been asking for?
Our guests are looking for our signature comfort favorites, items like Buttermilk Pancakes or Southern Fried Chicken. And they’ve really enjoyed our newest menu items including Chicken Pot Pie, Maple Bacon Chicken and Country Fried Pork Chops, and they love our new Orange and Strawberry Mimosas!

The most popular items on our refreshed Kid’s Menu are Mini Confetti Pancakes—three mini pancakes filled with fruity cereal—and the Dirt Cup Dessert, layering chocolate pudding, chocolate cookie crumbles and gummy worms.

We pride ourselves on giving our guests the choices and flexibility that they are looking for. Even prior to the pandemic, healthier options were a priority for many of our guests and we want to ensure we offer options to satisfy a variety of dietary needs. We’re able to offer items such as Chicken n’ Dumplins or the new Sunday Pot Roast Supper, which are 450 calories and 550 calories, respectively. They’ve been really popular.