Seven years after starting their biscuit-based breakfast and lunch concept, founders Scott Moore and Gus Evans agree to deal with Cracker Barrel.
Scott Moore and Gus Evans met Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. President and CEO Sandra Cochran about four years ago.
Moore and Evans were several years into their Jacksonville-based Maple Street Biscuit Company Inc. venture of opening biscuit-based breakfast and lunch restaurants. They launched the first in 2012.
“We spent a couple of days around her,” Moore said Saturday. “I thought, if we could have an opportunity to do something, that would be a good thing.”
Moore and Evans and their management team, along with Cochran, announced that “good thing” Oct. 11. Cracker Barrel paid $36 million in cash for Maple Street and its 33 restaurants in seven states.
Moore remains CEO and the management team and 600 employees remain in place. The operations remain the same, he said, with the exception of having the support and resources of Cracker Barrel.
Lebanon, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel is publicly traded and operates 660 restaurants in 45 states.
It has a breakfast menu heavy on biscuits and a chain of seven Holler & Dash Biscuit House stores in five states that will be converted into Maple Street.
Cracker Barrel wasn’t Maple Street’s only suitor — 20-25 entities expressed interest the past few years — but it was the chosen one.
“We had a lot of people over the years reach out to Maple Street to say we want to invest in or buy you,” Moore said.
He said the team talked to them, primarily to understand what they proposed, or “what that looks like.”
Then Maple Street started looking for a partner the past year. It hired the Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray investment banking group about seven months ago to clarify the picture.
“During that process I made contact with Cracker Barrel and there seemed to be some interest on both sides,” Moore said.
Until then, “We said no to everybody but we kept finding ourselves saying yes to Cracker Barrel.”
Moore said it took several months of talking with Cracker Barrel “to get to know each other well and realized there was significant alignment.”
“As a team we talked about it and said this is the right step.”
Major reasons include that Maple Street remains a standing brand; Moore remains as CEO; and the leadership and store team continue “leading the charge.”
Cracker Barrel is far larger. It reported revenue of almost $3.1 billion for the 2019 fiscal year that ended Aug. 2, up 1.4 percent from the year before. It forecasts up to $3.2 billion in revenue for the current fiscal year.
Moore declined to disclose Maple Street’s sales. The news release Friday said the company targeted annual sales of more than $1 million per store.
Moore will report to Cochran.
“We have the autonomy to do what we do, but she is committed to provide the resources to move into more communities,” he said.
He called that the “neatest thing.”
“Nothing changes. We have been this scrappy startup trying to find our way forward. Neither Gus or I had restaurant experience. We have just been trying to learn as we go,” he said.
He estimates it will take six months to plan the next steps toward expansion.
The Maple Street story started from scratch.
Moore, then 51 and married with three adult children, left as a vice president of Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. as it merged with Bi-Lo LLC in March 2012 to form Southeastern Grocers.
Human resources told him there was a smaller role he could post for and keep his compensation, but he turned it down.
“I said I’d like to know the last half of my life had more impact than the first half,” he said.
“I was not ready to coast into glory.”
Evans, then 33 and married with two young sons, lost his construction job during the recession and was considering a relocation to an opening out of town.
The men attended the same church. They set up a meeting at Starbucks and decided Moore’s idea of creating a restaurant focused on comfort food with a modern twist had promise.
They settled on biscuits.
Friends taste-tested buttermilk biscuit recipes weekly at Moore’s Avondale home. Evans was experimenting and substituted maple syrup for sugar and that was that.
They invested at least $50,000 into building-out and equipping the first Maple Street restaurant that opened in November 2012 at 2004 San Marco Blvd., where it continues to operate.
They moved the headquarters last year from co-work space Downtown to Orange Park.
Maple Street grew to 28 stores and five franchises.
“To go from two guys who lost their jobs with no experience or culinary background to open a restaurant that should have failed to have 600 people whose lives you can be a part of is a humbling thing,” Moore said.
The deal is recognized for success.
“I think the Maple Street deal is fantastic for the company and a great example of ‘real’ entrepreneurship,” said Jim Stallings, CEO of Jacksonville-based PS27 Ventures, an investment and training company for early-stage and innovation ventures.
“Maple Street now gets to team up with a large public company with a super-regional footprint in a space with growing demand for nutritious but good food,” he said.
Stallings said the deal shows how quickly a high-quality company, “led by a dynamic founder in Scott Moore can differentiate itself, build a brand and create value for its people and shareholders in just a short seven years.”
He said Maple Street founders did it the right way: “a great tasting product that people actually want to eat, a strong service-oriented culture and focus on cash flow from Day One.”
“(It) shows we can start up, grow and exit right here in Jacksonville.”
Timing the trend
Maple Street doesn’t want to be called a “chain.”
Instead, Moore said Maple Street is a group of community stores and each has a community leader whose mission is to become part of the neighborhood and to help team members.
Its guiding principles are: comfort food with a modern twist, gracious service, immaculately clean stores and sustainable business.
Moore said Cracker Barrel’s mission statement simply is “Pleasing People.”
“It is a consistent demonstration that they really have servants’ hearts and they want to do this,” he said.
The Maple Street leadership team and several of the longest-tenured community store leaders traveled to Denver this week to be honored as one of the five Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concept winners. The awards celebrate “emerging brands that are tapping into the right trends.”
Over the years, Moore and Evans added more team members: Alexandria Hill is general counsel; Javier Retamar is CFO; Tara Sikes is chief people officer; and co-owner Chris Sears, who opened the company’s second store, which is in Jacksonville Beach.
Moore said he, Evans, Sears and a few friends owned the company.
Moore is 58. Evans is 40 with four sons under the age of 13. Their spouses, Robyn Moore and Krysten Evans, designed the first store.
The community store leaders knew there was interest in the company, Moore said, but didn’t know about the impending sale.
The paperwork was completed Thursday night, Oct. 10. The announcement was 2 p.m. Friday.
The team members called the store leaders to tell them about bonuses above their normal program.
“Part of this deal was that all of our community leaders would get rewarded along with us,” Moore said.
Team members made those calls. One “had people crying, telling them what was going to happen for them.”
They’ve called and texted Moore, too.
Moore tells them “we are in this together.”