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Cracker Barrel Doubles Down on Country Music, Southern Fried Chicken, and Pecan Pudding

Caroline Banton, The Motley Fool

Some things should never change.

And Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. (NASDAQ: CBRL), a venerable icon in the casual food space, has no intentions of rebranding. While other casual hospitality concepts struggle to update their image and appeal to the whims of Gen Y-ers, Cracker Barrel remains obstinate in its business model. The result is slow, yet consistent growth based on a loyal consumer base.

Cake with pecans on top.

Image Source: Getty Images.

A recent announcement of a stock buyback also seems to imply quiet confidence in the old faithful's future outlook. As part of the third-quarter earnings call in June, Cracker Barrel CEO Sandy Cochran announced a special dividend of $3 per share on the company's common stock and authorized new share repurchases for up to $50 million.

In support of this quiet confidence, the company has been making some strategic moves -- but nothing that rocks the homestyle, country theme, of course. Instead, it is doubling down on its roots as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

If you can't get the chicken at Popeye's, you can get it at Cracker Barrel

Menu wise, Cracker Barrel is doubling down on comfort food. Sunday Homestyle Chicken, a favorite among customers who have long enjoyed a Sunday outing to Cracker Barrel, is now available every day so that fans can repeat the experience seven days a week. Cracker Barrel is updating its other classics such as Homestyle Chicken BLT and Praline Pecan Bread Pudding.

New menu items are also appearing. The company has invested in new state-of-the-art equipment to produce its Southern Fried Chicken -- Popeye's and KFC watch out.

A Punch Bowl partnership will help Cracker Barrel punch into new markets

Cracker Barrel is partnering with Punch Bowl and investing $140 million  for a non-controlling stake in the new social dining concept Punch Bowl Social. Punch Bowl offers made-from-scratch food and craft beverages in a social gaming environment targeting Millennials and Gen Z. Cracker Barrel's investment should give it in-roads to a new and expanding experiential food and beverage segment and provide additional value to shareholders.

Women in country music

In its early days, Cracker Barrel guests enjoyed live music by local musicians on its front porches. In rural areas, local pickers would gather and play guitars and banjos to appreciative casual diners. In July, Cracker Barrel revived its commitment to country, bluegrass, and gospel. The brand launched "Five Decades, One Voice,"  an initiative honoring women in country music.

For the initiative, Cracker Barrel is partnering with all-female big names from the country music industry. Names include Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town, Trisha Yearwood, and Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum.

The result will be an album of songs with proceeds of one dollar from every album sold to a nonprofit organization to benefit women in all areas of the music industry. A playlist will be sold at Cracker Barrel locations.

Cracker Barrel's latest earnings and balance sheet is also singing a melodic and pleasing refrain.

Cracking financials

In the latest earnings call for third-quarter 2019, comparable store restaurant sales grew 1.3%, and traffic of -1.8% outperformed the casual dining industry. Earnings per diluted share were $2.09, a 3% increase compared to $2.03 in the prior year third quarter.

The Board of Directors increased the quarterly dividend to $1.30 per share on the company's common stock, which represents a 4% increase over the company's previous quarterly dividend of $1.25 per share.

Cracker Barrel's confidence is bolstered by a profit of $50.4 million, which is up from $48.7 million in the same period a year earlier, on sales that rose 2.5% to almost $740 million.

Cracker Barrel is using its debt sensibly, and can easily meet its short term obligations with its cashflow. The company had $401.7 million in debt in May 2019 but cash reserves of $167.6 million.

This Old Country Store is managing to double down on its age-old branding yet deliver just what its customer base likes. This unique concept is wisely investing while responsibly managing its debt. Don't look for dramatic returns, but few casual hospitality stocks are as safe as this.

Not bad for an old timer!

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Caroline Banton has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

This article was originally published on Fool.com