If Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s experience coming back from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic represents casual dining as a whole, the message would appear to be: We’re halfway back but who knows how long before we make up the rest of the lost ground.
During the week that ended May 1, same-store sales at Lebanon-based Cracker Barrel were down 79 percent from the mark of a year earlier. That gap fell steadily during May as Cracker Barrel reopened dine-in service at many of its restaurants. By last weekend, the drop from 2019 had been cut to 45 percent. Those that had brought back dine-in service are down “only” 32 percent year over year.
Asked Tuesday about the main factors she’s watching in order for that trend to continue, President and CEO Sandy Cochran rattled off a long list that included people’s comfort levels with dining out, the extent to which Americans resume their patterns of summer travel and the fading effect of federal aid for consumers. In short: A lot needs to go right before Cracker Barrel and others in the restaurant world reach their pre-pandemic sales levels.
Still, Cochran and her team are hatching expansion plans. Two Cracker Barrel restaurants that should have already opened will set up shop in the company’s next fiscal year while the company plans to open no fewer than 15 Maple Street Biscuit locations in the next year and change. CFO Jill Golder noted that Maple Street restaurants — Cracker Barrel bought the company for $36 million last fall — typically cost about $750,000 to open but generate average annual sales of $1 million.
Around noon Wednesday, shares of Cracker Barrel (Ticker: CBRL) were up nearly 10 percent to roughly $117. They began the year above $150 and bottomed out during the market slide below $55.