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Cracker Barrel reported 3QFY11 (April) EPS of $0.58 (excluding a $0.06 gain from the sale of property) that was significantly below consensus of $0.66 and that same-store sales were down -0.3% for the restaurants and up 0.1% for retail, again, missing consensus expectations. 

Yes, it’s true that two-year trends improved sequentially on a monthly basis, as the quarter progressed, but the company raised prices aggressively in April.  While the desire to protect margins is understandable to a point, traffic has been the Achilles Heel of this company for some time. 

We’ve seen CBRL raise prices before in this situation and the outcome seems inevitable: traffic will suffer.  As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  The chart below shows the sequential deterioration in comparable restaurant sales at CBRL.

CBRL - A CONCEPT IN DECLINE - cbrl pod 1

The excuse given by the company and the forever-faithful bulls is to attribute the disappointing results to the economic environment.  While that may be true to some extent - CBRL traffic does track Vehicle Miles Driven quite closely - the company is clearly failing to increase usage.  As you can seen in the chart below, CBRL has only generated positive traffic in 3 of the last 19 quarters. 

Versus comparisons easy and difficult, traffic continues to decline.  Yet management continues to raise menu prices every quarter.  While CBRL core users generate 80% of their revenues, it’s imperative to keep giving them a reason to come back more often.  Unfortunately, raising prices on you core customer is not a long term strategy that will drive increased customer visits.  The data bears this out; two-year traffic trends continue to show no indication of an inflection in traffic trends.  Two-year average traffic trends declined 80 basis points to -2.1% in the third fiscal quarter versus -1.9% in 2QFY11.  This trend has been negative as far back as the eye can see.

CBRL - A CONCEPT IN DECLINE - cbrl traffic versus miles drive

We will see what management has to say on the call later today, but I would be surprised if there are any plans being implemented to increase customer visits that have not already been discussed.  The pressing question of the day is why management believes they can raise prices 3% on a low income customer that is seeing its disposable income decline.

Howard Penney

Managing Director