Why Cracker Barrel Can't Duck Controversy Now

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Cracker Barrel Can't Duck Controversy Now
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Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's front porch chairs aren't the only things rocking these days. The restaurant chain specializing in Southern comfort food with attached gift shops stocking throwback country trinkets has courted controversy with a pair of moves that has set off a testy debate.

Cracker Barrel (CBRL) became the first retailer to pull some "Duck Dynasty" merchandise over the weekend after the A&E reality show's Phil Robertson offended many readers by voicing comments that were insensitive to the gay and African American communities in a GQ magazine article.

There was naturally a fair amount of viral applause after the restaurant's swift move, but then came the voices from those that either agreed with Robertson's remarks or felt that his freedom of speech was being challenged. They took to Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB) and email campaigns to complain, threatening to boycott Cracker Barrel if the merchandise wasn't returned to the shelves.

A day later, Cracker Barrel complied.

Duck Sauce

"When we made the decision to remove and evaluate certain Duck Dynasty items, we offended many of our loyal customers," Cracker Barrel explained in a letter to customers Sunday. "Our intent was to avoid offending, but that's just what we've done."

"You told us we made a mistake. And, you weren't shy about it. You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened. Today, we are putting all our Duck Dynasty products back in our stores."

The note may seem overly apologetic, and outright offensive to those that were initially upset by Robertson's incendiary comments. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Then again, Cracker Barrel's strong presence in the South made it an unlikely trailblazer by pulling the products of one of the more popular reality shows on television. There are 7.3 million fans of the show on Facebook, and these are just the social media-savvy fans that happen to be on the leading social networking site. There are 1.7 million followers of the show's official Twitter feed.

Duck Duck Goose

Cracker Barrel's reversal took all of 24 hours, but naturally it's going to look bad from both sides. It initially angered the fans of the show, but then it offended those who were angered by the comments.

It's a strange series of events. Often the loudest cries for boycotts come against those making comments that are perceived to be insensitive. Just ask Paula Deen or Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy. This is a rare instance where the backlash to the backlash was what won a company over.

Then again, Cracker Barrel is no stranger to controversy.

Two decades ago, the chain came under fire for dismissing several employees -- according to what was reportedly an internal memo -- who weren't displaying "normal heterosexual values" at work. Several years later, some minority employees filed a discrimination lawsuit. That was followed in 2001 with some minority customers claiming that the restaurant was segregating patrons by race. Then there were sexual harassment claims at three of its eateries. Cracker Barrel paid to settle the claims.

Fowl Play

Cracker Barrel has publicly changed its policies so that they are more in tune with the times. It's also clear that the chain is more popular now than ever. The chain has grown to 625 locations, and its stock hit an all-time high late last month.

Many casual dining chains are struggling, but not Cracker Barrel. It has rattled off eight consecutive quarters of positive same-restaurant sales growth.

We'll see if this fresh wave of controversy nips that impressive streak or if it triggers a spike in loyalty. The chairs are rocking back and forth on the front porch, but things are heating up in the Cracker Barrel kitchen.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

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Why Cracker Barrel Can't Duck Controversy Now
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 14.2%
 Revenue: $73.3 billion
 1-year stock price change: 27.56%
 Store category: Discount & variety stores

Target (TGT) was the second most-visited discount retailer in the U.S. during March, behind only Walmart. One reason was the number of Target stores. The company has been attempting to take on Walmart by adding grocery sections to more  stores, and by offering groceries at competitive prices. This has helped Target maintain strong financial performance despite the weak economy and its additional spending on its launch in Canada. Most Americans surveyed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Target well: It finished in a three-way tie for second place in the department and discount store category, behind Nordstrom.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.2%
 Revenue: $13.6 billion
 1-year stock price change: -3.89%
 Store category: Fast food

As recently as 2011, Taco Bell (YUM) was struggling to keep competitor Chipotle (CMG) from taking its customers, with flat or negative same-store sales growth in each quarter that year. This changed in early 2012, when Taco Bell released the Doritos Locos taco, a hard taco with the flavor of Doritos nacho chips. That item help the company increase comparable sales in every quarter of 2012, as the company sold more than 1 million of them a day. In March, Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed told The Daily Beast the company had hired 15,000 workers just to meet demand for the Doritos Locos taco in 2012. Last year, the company's sales increased by $1 billion to $11.8 billion, and net income rose by roughly $300 million to $1.6 billion.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.9%
 Revenue: $123.1 billion
 1-yr. stock price change: 27.56%
 Store category: Drugstore

CVS (CVS)  is the top provider of prescriptions in the country, filling or managing more than 1 billion prescriptions a year. It has operates in 45 states, and 75% of the people in the markets it serves live within three miles one of the company's 7,400 retail stores. Last year, CVS estimated it gained millions of new customers following a dispute between Walgreens (WAG) and Express Scripts (ESRX), the prescription management service. Even after the dispute was resolved, CVS was able to retain many customers who used to fill prescriptions at Walgreens. In the first quarter of 2013, the company's revenue grew 5%, as same-store sales grew 4%.

Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.7%
 Revenue: $71.6 billion
 1-year stock price change: 42.17%
 Store category: Drugstore

Despite CVS's gains, Walgreens is still the most visited drugstore in the country. According to RetailSails, the company has the most stores, at 7,890, and the largest average store, at 14,400 square feet, among all drugstore chains. The company's tenure in first place may not last, however, thanks to that now-resolved dispute with Express Scripts. The company spent nearly nine months without using Express Scripts, the largest prescription management service in the country, losing an estimated 60 million prescriptions to rivals. CVS estimates that it will retain roughly half of the Walgreen's customers it gained as a result of the squabble.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.8%
 Revenue: $2.5 billion
 1-Year stock price change: 11.84%
 Store category: Fast food

In 2011, Wendy's (WEN) overall sales surpassed Burger King's, making it the second-largest burger chain in the U.S. But Wendy's growth has actually been quite modest as of late, with same-store sales in North America growing just 1.6% from 2011 to 2012. (In fact, Wendy's first-quarter profit just tumbled 83%.) Wendy's is in the process of remodeling many of its restaurants with more comfortable seating arrangements and flat-screen televisions. However, not all of its stores are getting upgraded. The company announced in March it was going to shutter as many as 130 underperforming stores. Last year, the company also made significant changes in its marketing strategy and menu in order to attract customers who have been lured in by chains such as Panera, which promotes healthier food at slightly higher prices.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 23.9%
 Revenue: $13.3 billion
 1-year stock price change: 12.46%
 Store category: Coffee

There is a reason Starbucks (SBUX) is No. 1 in the coffee category: Sales in the U.S. grew by nearly 346% between 2001 and 2012, and the number of stores grew by 195%. The company has struggled in the U.S. in the past several years, but its stock has continued to rise as global sales have helped to pick up the slack. Worldwide, Starbucks revenue grew by 7% in 2012 compared to 2011. This included a 15% growth in the Asia/Pacific region. In its early years, the company did not place much emphasis on its food items. However, that has changed in recent years, especially following the purchase of Bay Area pastry chain La Boulangerie. However, some industry analysts remain skeptical of Starbucks' ability to compete for customers' breakfast purchases.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 24.3%
 Revenue: $2.0 billion
 1-year stock price change: N/A
 Store category: Fast food

The last decade or so has been especially tumultuous for Burger King: It was taken private in two separate instances, in 2002 and in 2010, and became a public company again last June. The company hasn't performed well in years, with an average growth rate of -0.1% between 2001 and 2013, which allowed Wendy's to take its No. 2 burger chain title. A restructuring that began after the second buyout in 2010, in which many stores were sold to franchisees, has cut deeply into the company's sales. But not all news for Burger King is bad news: Nearly one quarter of Americans visited a Burger King in March.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 37.8%
 Revenue: N/A
 1-year stock price change: N/A
 Store category: Fast food

Between 2001 and 2012, Subway's sales in the U.S. grew nearly 169%, while the number of stores grew nearly 93%. Subway is by far the largest fast food chain in the U.S., with almost 26,000 restaurants. The company has been able to fuel its large growth through both international expansion and a domestic focus on healthy eating, most notably using ads featuring Jared Fogle -- a man who lost an impressive amount of weight while regularly eating the company's sandwiches. In 2013, for the ninth year in a row, Subway received the highest score in the country in a Harris Poll EquiTrend study in the "quick service restaurants" category and was named brand of the year by that group.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 38.8%
 Revenue: $469.2 billion
 1-year  stock price change: 34.29%
 Store category: Discount & variety stores

Walmart (WMT) is by far the largest retailer in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. It was recently ranked No. 1 in the Fortune 500 after it reported more than $469 billion in worldwide revenue in 2012. While international markets are critical to growth, the U.S. market provides the majority of its revenue: U.S. sales comprise 62% of the company's sales. In the last five years, Walmart has added 450 U.S. stores, a 13% increase overall. However, according to Bloomberg, the company's U.S. workforce has dropped 1.4% in that time frame, leading customers to complain about a lack of inventory and longer check-out lines -- and to defect to rivals such as Target and Costco. In February, the American Customer Service Index ranked Walmart the lowest of all discount retailers, the sixth year in a row the chain has held or tied for the last place spot.

Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 49.0%
 Revenue: $27.6 billion
1-year stock price change: 6.92%
 Store category: Fast food<

Almost half of all Americans visited a McDonald's (MCD) in March, but, U.S. sales of $8.8 billion weren't even the company's largest revenue segment last year. Rather it was the company's sales in Europe of $10.8 billion. According to Technomic, McDonald's same-store sales grew at an annualized rate of nearly 5% from 2001 through 2012. However, this has slowed recently: The company's systemwide sales in the United States rose by just 0.3% from the year before in the final quarter of 2012. The company is already so large that its bottom line is deeply linked to global economic conditions, leaving it unable to raise prices for now. In order to boost sales, McDonald's CEO Bob Thompson told CNBC the company may try allowing U.S. stores to serve breakfast all day.

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