Cracker Barrel's Wholesome Fixin's menu includes this entree, the Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken Breast with fresh vegetables, 330 calories.
By G. Chambers Williams III / The Tennessean
LEBANON - Giving a nod to calorie-conscious diners concerned about healthy eating, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Monday rolls out it first major menu change in nearly a decade, adding a lineup of entrees called "Wholesome Fixin's."
Five new breakfast choices under 600 calories and six lunch and dinner offerings under 500 calories - along with four new side items - take up a whole page in the new breakfast and lunch/dinner menus.
The goal is to give diners "lighter, fresher" alternatives to Cracker Barrel's traditional "Southern country home-style" food, said Chris Ciavarra, the Lebanon-based chain's senior vice president for marketing.
"It's about giving guests more choices, but it's still very much Cracker Barrel, and the familiar favorites are still going to be on the menu," he said. "We're also keeping prices of the new items in line with the rest of the menu."
Among them: Multi-grain French Toast with a honey-citrus-yogurt topping ($6.59); Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken Breast ($7.99); Pecan Crusted Catfish ($8.69); Pepper Grilled Sirloin ($10.49); and Good Morning Breakfast ($7.19), featuring cholesterol-free "Egg Beaters" and turkey bacon or sausage. Sides include fresh, seasonal fruit that will change five times a year.
While Cracker Barrel hopes the new menu items will bring in new customers, "They're really about the guests we have now, especially people who aren't coming as often as we'd like," Ciavarra said.
The restaurant chain hopes to help neutralize the "veto vote" - the person in a group of diners who says "I don't want to eat there," prompting the group to go elsewhere, he said.
Cracker Barrel, with 624 restaurant/country store combinations nationwide, began researching the new menu initiative about two years ago, Ciavarra said, starting with an online survey of about 2,000 people - customers and non-customers.
"We set out to see how we could re-interpret our brand for what's happening now," he said. "We found huge interest in the [Wholesome Fixin's] idea."
Selecting about 40 potential new menu items, the company began testing them in a few restaurants, including one in Murfreesboro, and eventually whittled the choices down to 18 before conducting a wider test in select stores in Ohio, Florida and other areas.
From that, the 11 final choices were made, and those items - along with the four new sides - will appear on the Cracker Barrel menus nationwide beginning Monday morning, Ciavarra said.
"I think it's a great idea," said analyst Jon Heller with KEJ Financial Advisors in Newtown, Pa., who follows Cracker Barrel and also admits to being a fan of the restaurant. "It's an attempt to broaden their appeal, and it will be interesting to see how it works out. It's definitely worth a shot.
"But it's also important that they keep the menu items that people are familiar with, and that they come to Cracker Barrel for," Heller said. "When you think of Cracker Barrel, you think of country food with biscuits, cornbread, gravies and sauces. You can't do away with those."
Not to worry, Ciavarra said. "Country fried steak and other favorites will still be there."
Wholesome Fixin's isn't a fad thing, either, he said. "This is a long-term kind of move for us. I don't expect results from day one; it's going to take a while to change consumer perceptions."
Bill Kintzler, Cracker Barrel's director of product development and executive chef, has been working on the new items in the company's test kitchen at the headquarters complex in Lebanon, and has been choosing suppliers and training staff members for the rollout.
"Every recipe we develop goes through a stringent approval process," he said during a tour of the test kitchen on Friday. "Our goal is to ensure quality and consistency throughout our stores."
Cracker Barrel, a publicly traded company whose stock price has soared about 35 percent this year, has 70,000 employees, and getting them up to speed on the new menu has been a key focus, Ciavarra said.
"We're attempting to change the perception of our brand in a favorable way, and our people are a big part of that," he said.
"With Wholesome Fixin's, we're trying to strike a balance with our guests. But that doesn't mean we've become a health-food joint now."