NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- 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 that comparable items. The goal: To attract health-conscious diners who otherwise bypass thechain 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 featurebreakfast meals with fewer than 500 calories and lunch/dinner meals withfewer than 600 calories. Pamela Smith, a registered dietitian,nutritional author and consultant based in Orlando, Fla., developed themenu.
"We're currently testing the category with the expectation of addingit to the menu this summer," Sandra Cochran, the company's president andCEO, told analysts during an earnings call last week.
The company said it would not offer further comment. Smith also declined to comment, calling it "premature."
Butan analyst who visited Cracker Barrel locations in Richmond, Va., oneof the markets where Wholesome Fixin's is being tested, recently wrotethat new menu items include:
-- A grilled catfish brushed withorange marmalade and a seasoned pecan crust with a serving of roastedvegetables on the side. It was listed as having 300 calories.
-- Abaked chicken breast dipped in a buttermilk-blended dressing and coatedwith seasoned, toasted cornflake crumbs. Its 360 reported caloriesinclude a side of roasted vegetables.
-- A breakfast sandwichconsisting of whole-wheat flat bread, eggs and Colby cheese, with freshfruit on the side. It has 390 calories, according to the menu.
Pricesranged from $3.99 to $7.99 for breakfast plates and $6.99 to $9.49 fordinner plates, Davenport & Company analyst Jeff Omohundro wrote in arecent research note.
It's hard to tell how those items compare,calorie-wise, to others on Cracker Barrel's regular menu because thecompany does not disclose nutritional information. It is not required todo so, but that will change under a provision of the 2010 federalhealth care law that will take effect once final rules are adopted,possibly later this year.
Cracker Barrel said the new menu is inresponse to consumer research, which showed more patrons were eating atthe restaurant less often because they felt its food "was tooindulgent," Cochran said during a recent investor conference.
"Althoughwe had healthy items on our menu, we needed to do a better job ofpulling them together, highlighting it for our guests, and making iteasy for them to find them," Cochran said at the Wells Fargo Retail& Restaurants Summit in October, according to a transcript.
It'spart of the chain's efforts to boost sales at its 621 locations andbroaden its appeal. The company also plans to begin selling CrackerBarrel-branded meats, glazes and other food items through grocery storesand other retailers, although a trademark-infringement lawsuit filed inJanuary by foodmaker giant Kraft could disrupt that plan.
CrackerBarrel becomes the latest restaurant chain to increase its healthyofferings in response to Americans' changing tastes, said Sarah JaneBedwell, a registered dietician and nutritionist in Nashville, Tenn.
"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."
Industry analysts also praise the strategy for its potential financial benefits.
"Webelieve these menu introductions further demonstrate the company'scommitment to improving menu offerings that meet guest needs ataffordable prices, and could help benefit incremental traffic as themenu initiatives resonate with the more health conscious consumers,"Omohundro wrote in a December research note.
Another restaurantexpert, though, said Cracker Barrel isn't being aggressive enough."Cracker Barrel is doing the right thing, but too cautiously and tooslowly," said Aaron Allen, a restaurant marketing consultant based inOrlando, Fla.
The chain should offer more healthy dishes andcharge more for them, making it easier to later raise other menu pricesand boost its average check size, he said. Cracker Barrel's averagecheck size rose by 3.1 percent in the most recent quarter, driven by a2.6 percent increase in menu prices.