Categories Consumer, Earnings Call Transcripts

Casey’s General Stores, Inc. (CASY) Q3 2022 Earnings Call Transcript

CASY Earnings Call - Final Transcript

Casey’s General Stores, Inc.  (NASDAQ: CASY) Q3 2022 earnings call dated Mar. 09, 2022

Corporate Participants:

Brian Johnson — Senior Vice President of Investor Relations and Business Development

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Analysts:

Karen Short — Barclays — Analyst

Ben Bienvenu — Stephens — Analyst

Ben Wood — BMO Capital Markets — Analyst

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

Bonnie Herzog — Goldman Sachs — Analyst

Anthony Lebiedzinski — Sidoti & Company — Analyst

Krisztina Katai — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

John Royall — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Good day, and thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Casey’s General Stores’ Third Quarter Fiscal Year 2022 Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Please be advised that today’s conference is being recorded. [Operator Instructions]

I would now like to hand the conference over to your speaker today, Brian Johnson, Senior Vice President, Investor Relations and Business Development. Please go ahead.

Brian Johnson — Senior Vice President of Investor Relations and Business Development

Good morning, and thank you for joining us to discuss the results from our third quarter ended January 31, 2022. I am Brian Johnson, Senior Vice President, Investor Relations and Business Development. With me today are Darren Rebelez, President and Chief Executive Officer; and Steve Bramlage, Chief Financial Officer.

Before we begin, I’ll remind you that certain statements made by us during this investor call may constitute forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These forward-looking statements include any statements relating to expectations for future periods, possible or assumed future results of operations, financial conditions, liquidity and related sources or needs, the company’s supply chain, business and integration strategies, plans and synergies, growth opportunities, performance at our stores and the potential effects of COVID-19. There are a number of known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors that may cause our actual results to differ materially from any future results expressed or implied by those forward-looking statements, including, but not limited to, the integration of recent acquisitions, our ability to execute on our strategic plan or to realize benefits from the strategic plan, the impact and duration of COVID-19 and related governmental actions as well as other risks, uncertainties and factors, which are described in our most recent annual report on Form 10-K and quarterly reports on Form 10-Q as filed with the SEC and available on our website.

Any forward-looking statements made during this call reflect our current views as of today with respect to future events, and Casey’s disclaims any intention or obligation to update or revise forward-looking statements whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise. A reconciliation of non-GAAP to GAAP financial measures referenced in this call as well as a detailed breakdown of the operating expense increase for the third quarter can be found on our website at www.caseys.com under the Investor Relations link.

With that said, I would now like to turn the call over to Darren to discuss our third quarter results. Darren?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Brian, and good morning, everyone. We’re looking forward to sharing our results in a moment. But I would like to start by thanking our 43,000 Casey’s team members for their tireless efforts as we continue to overcome the ongoing challenges with COVID-19 and the resulting supply chain issues as well as challenging weather conditions in our geography. Our team members have done an outstanding job navigating through these difficult situations and the team’s ability to perform under the circumstances is something I’m especially proud of and grateful for.

At Casey’s, our purpose is to make life better for our communities and guests every day. As a rural Midwestern operator, we play a significant role in the towns we operate in. It is a privilege and a responsibility we take to heart. In February, we once again activated our Hunger campaign in partnership with Feeding America. This partnership raises funds that support 52 local food banks in the communities where we operate. Hunger continues to be a real issue in our communities. We appreciate Monster Energy’s partnership in this year’s campaign and all our team members and guests who supported the effort. The campaign raised over $500,000 and will fund over 5 million meals.

In the third quarter, we closed our third strategic acquisition of the year with the 40 Pilot stores in the Knoxville, Tennessee market underscoring our commitment to accelerating unit growth. These stores will help us further build out our footprint in Tennessee and will be supplied from our existing distribution center in Terre Haute, Indiana. I would like to personally welcome those employees to the Casey’s family. We’re excited to become a part of the Knoxville community and appreciate your partnership as we integrate those stores into our network. We’re also excited about the strong progress we’ve made integrating our two previous strategic acquisitions of Bucky’s and Circle K, which are on track to realize expected synergies.

Overall, we’re highly confident in our ability to deliver on our strategic commitments and manage through the near-term challenges presented by the current environment as evidenced by our third quarter results. As you’ve seen in the press release, we delivered an outstanding third quarter. Diluted earnings per share was a record-breaking $1.71, up 64% from the prior year. Total gross profit dollars increased $124 million to $664 million compared to the prior year. Net income was $64 million, up 66% from the prior year.

Same-store sales were strong for both inside sales and fuel as guest traffic continue to improve. Inside same-store sales were up 7.6%, while fuel gallons increased 5.7%. Our inside margin remained relatively flat versus the prior year, despite supply chain and price inflation issues. In fuel, margin increased over $0.38 per gallon despite a volatile cost environment during the quarter.

I would now like to go over our results and share some of the details in each of the categories. Inside same-store sales were up 7.6% for the third quarter compared to the prior year with an average margin of 39.4%. Same-store grocery and general merchandise sales were up 7.7% and the average margin was 32%, an increase of 130 basis points from the prior — same period a year ago. We’ve been able to expand margin due to the great work our team has done navigating supply chain and inflation challenges by making prompt price adjustments and leveraging strong supplier partner collaboration. We performed well across all categories with nonalcoholic beverages and salty snacks, continuing to perform exceptionally well.

Nonalcoholic beverages in total were up over 24% on a two-year stack basis. Alcohol same-store sales were up mid-single digits despite challenging comparisons and remain up over 23% on a two-year stack basis. This growth is being driven by approximately 1,500 stores that sell hard alcohol. We have significantly broadened our assortment of spirits in these stores, and it shows in our results. This scale in liquor licenses is a unique competitive advantage to Casey’s relative to the rest of the industry.

Same-store prepared food and dispensed beverage sales were up 7.4% in the quarter. The average margin for the quarter was 58%, down 260 basis points from a year ago. Pizza slices continued to perform well, up 24% for the quarter, while hot breakfast sandwiches were up close to 49% as part of the company’s breakfast menu relaunch that began in September. Margin has been adversely impacted by supply chain challenges and inflation, partially offset by menu price increases.

During the third quarter, same-store fuel gallons sold were up 5.7% with a fuel margin of 38.3 cents per gallon, up approximately 5.4 cents per gallon compared to the same period last year. The fuel team continues to do a tremendous job balancing fuel volume and margin to optimize the profitability of the category. Fuel margins remain strong, which we view as a long-term favorable trend as the industry remains reliant upon fuel margins, to offset higher operating costs.

I’d now like to turn the call over to Steve to go into some detail on the financials. Steve?

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Darren, and good morning. Before I jump into the financials, I’d also like to take a minute to acknowledge the team, given the strong performance throughout the entire business this quarter. The company fired on all cylinders from operating the stores, to managing fuel, merchandising the floor, generating momentum and guest engagement with our various marketing initiatives all the while strongly collaborating with our partners to manage the inflationary and supply chain challenged environment.

Total revenue for the quarter was approximately $3 billion, which is an increase of $1 billion or 52% from the prior year. Total inside sales rose 15.4% from the prior year to $1 billion. For the quarter, grocery and general merchandise sales increased by $108 million to $733 million, an increase of 17.3%. And prepared food and dispensed beverage sales rose by $29 million to $293 million, an increase of 10.9%.

Please note, the reported figures are favorably impacted by 9% more stores operated on a year-over-year basis. Though I’ll point out prepared food and dispensed beverage was less favorably impacted due to the timing of kitchen installations at our recent acquisitions. We won’t start selling our prepared food menu in these new acquisitions until we finish remodeling the stores.

Retail fuel sales were up $851 million in the third quarter, driven by a 19.9% increase of total gallons sold to 622 million gallons as well as a 48% increase in the average retail price per gallon. The average retail price of fuel during this period was $3.14 a gallon, and that compares to $2.12 a year ago.

As a reminder, reported fuel results do not include the Buchanan Energy wholesale fuel business, which is included in the other revenue category and is responsible for the vast majority of the $53 million increase we saw this quarter in this line item. We define gross profit as revenue less cost of goods sold, but excluding depreciation and amortization.

Casey’s had gross profit of $664 million in the third quarter, an increase of $124 million or nearly 23% from the prior year. This is driven by higher inside gross profit of $52.3 million or 14.9% as well as an increase of $67.4 million or 39.6% in fuel gross profit. Inside gross profit margin was 39.4%, down 20 basis points from a year ago. The merchandise team did a tremendous job offsetting cost increases across all categories. Inside gross profit margin was also negatively impacted by 70 basis points from a higher-than-normal LIFO charge. This noncash charge is a function of the higher cost of existing inventory and was particularly impactful to our prepared food and dispensed beverage margins.

The grocery and general merchandise margin was up 130 basis points to 32% from a year ago. The increase was driven by an improved product mix of single-serve nonalcoholic beverages and snack items as well as a favorable comparison to the merchandise discounts that were taken last year during our store resets. Those resets have made a positive impact to inside sales and margin throughout the last 12 months.

Prepared food and dispensed beverage margin was 58%, down 260 basis points from prior year. The decline was due to significant cost increases that occurred in our prepared food and dispensed beverage ingredients and pizza toppings as well as an approximately 100 basis point impact from the higher-than-normal LIFO charge I previously mentioned. The merchandise team was able to partially offset the cost increases with a round of proactive menu price increases and a more significant round of increases is scheduled for mid-March. These increases should more than offset the adverse impact of higher cost of goods.

Cheese costs did not have a meaningful impact to margin this quarter. The quarter’s costs were $1.99 per pound and that compares to $2 per pound last year. While supply chain challenges have improved since the second quarter, notably in cups, the company still experienced disruption within prepared food and dispensed beverage. Bakery items, specifically our popular glazed donuts, continue to be an acute short supply as our vendor partners experienced COVID-related disruptions.

Fuel gross profit benefited by over $10 million from the sale of RINs. All RINs generated were sold in the quarter, and there was no carryover from previous quarters. Our grocery and general merchandise gross profit increased $42.6 million while prepared food and dispensed beverage gross profit increased to $9.8 million. We also saw a $4.5 million lift in other gross profit. This is primarily due to the dealer network activities and car washes that we acquired from Buchanan Energy acquisition.

Total operating expenses, excluding credit card fees, were up 16.6% to $443 million in the third quarter. Total reported operating expenses were up 18.5% or $77 million, which is consistent with our expectations and a reduction from our second quarter growth rate by several hundred basis points. Approximately 9% of the operating expense increase is due to unit growth as we operated 202 more stores than in the prior year. Approximately 4% of the opex increase is due to same-store employee expenses, and that was offset by a 2% reduction in store hours worked. Our store operations team has done a great job rising to the challenge to operate our stores more efficiently, given the wage pressure impacting the industry. Store level wage rates were up 10.5% from the prior year.

Finally, due to the higher retail fuel prices mentioned earlier, same-store credit card fees also rose and thus accounted for another 2% of the operating expense increase in the quarter. And finally, 2% of the increase is due to higher incentive compensation. Depreciation in the quarter was up 15.9% driven primarily by the store growth along with the new distribution center placed in service at the start of our fiscal year.

Net interest expense was $14.4 million in the quarter, that compares to $11.5 million in the prior year. The increase is due to the additional debt taken on to fund the Bucky’s and the Pilot acquisitions. The effective tax rate for the quarter was 23.4%, and that compares to 21.3% in the prior year, driven primarily by timing associated with the recognition of tax credits in the prior year.

Net income was up in the prior year, versus the prior year to $64 million. EBITDA for the quarter was $173.5 million compared to $125.7 million a year ago, an increase of 38%. The Buchanan Energy, Circle K and Pilot acquisitions were all accretive to EBITDA in the third quarter as we expected. Our balance sheet remains strong. At January 31st, cash and cash equivalents were $187 million, and we have the full capacity of our $475 million in lines of credit available, giving us ample liquidity of $662 million. Our leverage ratio remained at 2.4 times post the closing of the acquisitions, and that’s consistent with the first and second quarters.

For the quarter, net cash generated by operating activities of $81 million, less purchases of property and equipment of $105 million resulted in the Company using $24 million in cash flow. This compares to generating $7 million in the prior year. Despite decline in free cash flow for the quarter, which is seasonally our lowest, was primarily attributable to the payment of payroll taxes we made this quarter that were temporarily deferred last year as part of the Federal Cares Act.

At the March meeting, the Board of Directors voted to maintain a dividend of $0.35 per share, unchanged from the second quarter. We will continue to remain balanced in our capital allocation going forward, leaning into the many EBITDA and ROIC accretive growth-related investment opportunities that we have, but continuing to repay debt gradually towards 2 times and consistently returning cash to shareholders through our dividend. The Board recently approved an increased share repurchase authorization of $400 million, and we will remain opportunistic in this regard. So far this year, the company has opened 11 new stores and it has acquired 191 stores. The company is maintaining its fiscal 2022 outlook that was previously disclosed.

The fourth quarter is off to a good start, and we expect that to continue through the end of the fiscal year. Casey’s expects the fourth quarter same-store sales up low single digits for fuel and up mid-single digits for inside the store. Fuel margins are currently trending in the low to mid-30s CPG quarter-to-date. We continue to expect fourth quarter operating expenses to improve from prior quarters, an increase between 11% to 13% versus the prior year. There have been no changes in our expectations for operating expense items that we control.

However, given current retail fuel prices, we are going to be at the high end of that range. The recent rise, in retail prices of fuel from the conflict in Ukraine, should they continue at current levels, have the potential to push us above the range as credit card fees would continue to rise. Regardless, we expect net earnings in the fourth quarter to be higher than the prior year.

I’ll now turn the call back over to Darren.

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Steve. As you can see, our business is really starting to take off as the country gets closer to normal in the wake of the pandemic. Casey’s has shown tremendous resiliency throughout COVID and we’re positioned especially well to deliver future value to our shareholders through our strategic plan.

As a reminder, the three pillars of our strategic plan are, to reinvent the guest experience; create capacity through efficiencies; and be where the guest is via disciplined growth. All three pillars are supported by investing in and growing our talented team. Our industry-leading prepared food program is poised to outperform. This category was more heavily impacted by COVID due to the disruption in daily commuter traffic patterns compared to the traditional convenience store items like beer and tobacco. We believe the resurgence we have begun to experience this quarter is likely a sign of things to come.

Casey’s rolled out a successful breakfast relaunch with innovative new items such as our Toastwich signature handheld, Loaded Breakfast Burrito and bean to cup coffee. The result was a mid-teen percentage lift in morning daypart traffic and same-store sales. This was a great example of the kind of culinary innovation you can expect from Casey’s moving forward.

In addition to our new products, core menu items, such as pizza slices, were up 25% for the year and are not showing any signs of slowing down. Overall, as guest traffic improves, we are well positioned with our prepared food program to disproportionately benefit. The progress we’ve made to reinvent the guest experience with our digital engagement, will further bolster our business.

Digital sales were up 11% in the third quarter on top of a 95% increase in the same quarter last year. Our Casey’s rewards enrollment continues to grow and now sits at 4.6 million members. We have never had a more accurate and efficient means of communicating personalized offers to our guests than we have right now.

Finally, with curbside pickup in all of our stores, in addition to our partnerships with third-party aggregators has never been more convenient for our guests to try our made-from-scratch pizza and other items. We now have over 1,400 stores that offer some sort of delivery service for our guests.

Our private label program continues to grow and take market share. Not only are the products high quality, but they’re also a more affordable alternative for our guests seeking value. This is particularly relevant in the current inflationary environment that our guests are experiencing today. We currently offer over 250 items and are confident in our ability to achieve our longer-term goal of 10% penetration of the grocery and general merchandise category. We’re currently trending at our exit rate goal for the year of 5% mix in Casey’s branded products with new items on the way.

Our efficient self-distribution system has been instrumental in helping us navigate through one of the most difficult supply chain environments, the country has experienced in decades. Our new distribution center, Joplin, Missouri allows us to more efficiently support stores in our existing network, but will also enable us to expand our reach into new markets within our geography. We believe that, coupled with our proprietary prepared food program will help enable our goal to continue to deliver best-in-class margins inside the store.

Considering almost 65% of the convenience stores in America are operated by owners of 10 stores or less, the capabilities I just mentioned provide Casey’s with a significant competitive advantage, particularly in the rural communities we call home. Larger operators envy our prepared food program and smaller operators often don’t have the scale to make investments in digital customer engagement, omni-channel retail, self-distribution or private label brands.

Casey’s is in the fortunate position to leverage this advantage to be where the guest is and grow units organically via new store construction or as you’ve witnessed more recently through acquisitions. Our dedicated M&A team has been busy executing on three significant acquisitions and is ready for more. Income tax uncertainty, labor shortages, supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures have brought about significant consolidation in our industry, and Casey’s is poised with an incredibly healthy balance sheet to take on many more deals to come. Given that roughly 2,000 of our stores are only in 9 of our 16 states we operate in, we have tremendous wide space to grow our business, both within our current footprint and in contiguous markets.

Now none of this would have been possible without the incredibly talented leadership team we’ve assembled here at Casey’s. The team is a strategic blend of long-term Casey’s leadership and outside talent with a fresh perspective on the business. Centralized procurement, loss prevention and consumer insights are just some of the new capabilities we’ve recently added to the business.

So as we begin to finally emerge from the pandemic and embrace the new normal, I think you’ll find that the strength of our business model will really come to the forefront. We are incredibly excited about the future ahead and firmly believe we have the right strategy and team in place, to achieve long-term sustainable shareholder value, while also making a positive impact on the communities we serve. We’re now prepared to answer your questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Karen Short with Barclays. Your line is open.

Karen Short — Barclays — Analyst

Hi, thanks very much. Sorry for this short-term question, but I’m wondering if you could just first start off by giving a little color on the price — actual percent price increase that you touched in this quarter? And then, the impact to the comp this quarter? And then, the anticipated price increase that you will take, I think you said in March? And how that will impact the comp? And then, I had one or two on the bigger picture.

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Yes, hi, good morning, Karen, this is Steve. I’ll start with that. We incurred about a 4% cost increase across the across the board if you think of our goods for resale. And so, over the course of the quarter, we took about a comparable percentage increase in price. They didn’t all occur on the first day of the quarter, to be fair, and it was kind of layered in over the course of the quarter. So the net was a little bit less than that, but we will roll into a 4% increase. And then, the price increases that I mentioned coming in March are going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% to 6% on average across most of our prepared food SKUs. And again, those we won’t absorb all of that in the current quarter, but annualized, that’s what that number will be.

Karen Short — Barclays — Analyst

Okay. So, when we think about the gross margin decline in prepared foods, so that would be a function, obviously, a lag in taking price. But within grocery, you would say that, that was much more matched to the cost increase? Or maybe I’m just trying to understand how to think about gross margin beyond — 4Q?

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Yes. I think your assumption is correct. We were — I think, lined up the price increase and the cost increase was more closely aligned in the grocery business because that business primarily is contractual for us. And so, as we worked through annual contract renegotiations over the last couple of months with our supplier partners, we had a pretty good sense of where those were going to land, and we’re able to act on retail adjustments really about the same time that the cost started coming through. The prepared food business is much less contractual and much more commodity oriented in nature. And so, it’s a little bit tougher for us to line that up exactly and hence the lag. But I would point out on the prepared food side, the LIFO charge just mechanically was a much heavier impact in the quarter on that particular side of the business just by the nature of how it works for us.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Ben Bienvenu with Stephens. Your line is open.

Ben Bienvenu — Stephens — Analyst

Hey, thanks, good morning. Just following up on Karen’s question there. As it relates to the prepared food margins. Two-part question. One, was the LIFO charge that you saw in the quarter, is that isolated to that quarter? Would you expect to take any subsequent charges associated with LIFO expense? And then typically, the prepared food margin, I don’t know that there’s so much seasonality, but it does have a pattern of declining sequentially from 3Q to 4Q. I’m wondering if that would be the case again this year, just given that LIFO dynamic? And then just given kind of where we are on, as you say, the commodity backdrop?

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Yes, Ben, this is Steve. I’ll start with that on the mechanics of LIFO, we actually take LIFO charges almost every quarter, just as the way the accounting works. In a kind of noninflationary environment, they tend to be de minimis, and we don’t obviously talk about them very often because of the environment that we’re in and because so much of our grocery business is on a calendar year. The renegotiations all really begin on January 1st. And so the way you do that is you take a charge when they come through. And so hence, that’s a January 1st item for us. Our most typical LIFO item we adjust would be tobacco because we tend to get those more frequently. But again, it’s just, it’s more acute this year, given the size of the inflation that comes through.

To your question on seasonality of margins, for sure, the third quarter, just based on the weather in our geography tends to be our lowest margin business from a prepared food standpoint. Fourth quarter is a little bit more of a blend, right? As we move into the warmer months at the end of our fourth quarter, that’s going to be accretive to margins as a general rule.

Ben Bienvenu — Stephens — Analyst

Okay. Great. Thank you. And then, my second question is just related to — you’re taking pricing relative to any elasticities you’re seeing from your customer set? I know the backdrop is changing rapidly kind of day by day and it’s increasingly dynamic. What are you seeing, if anything, with respect to price sensitivities from your customers’ migration across categories in the store, trading down, etc.,? That would be helpful to hear. Thank you.

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, Ben, this is Darren. I would say, generally speaking, we’ve seen good momentum in the business, as you can see from the inside sales. And that is a blend of both increased velocity from a unit standpoint as well as price. So we’re pretty balanced at this point in that respect. The one thing I would say is we have seen a ramp more recently with the private brand products. And you can see that mix start to shift a bit. And so we probably are experiencing some trade down, but that really accrues to our benefit because the penny profit in those private brand items is actually higher than in the national brands. So — and that’s per our strategy with private brands. So we actually, we don’t mind seeing that. And like I mentioned earlier in the narrative that we hit right around that 5% exit rate goal. So we’re a couple of months ahead of schedule on that, and that, I think, is in part from that mix shifting.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Kelly Bania with BMO Capital Markets. Your line is open.

Ben Wood — BMO Capital Markets — Analyst

Hi guys, this is Ben Wood on for Kelly Bania. Thank you for taking our question. I first wanted to dig in on store growth. By our math, you need to add about 80 stores in 2023 to hit your 2023 goal, which is down significantly from the 225 stores this year. So does the lumpiness of acquisitions this year limit your ability to grow next year, if not, wondering how you’re thinking about potential upside to target that target store number in 2023? Is another 200 stores possible in this environment?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Ben, this is Darren. I’ll start. So, to answer your second question, I guess, is, no, the acquisitions we bought this year aren’t going to impact our ability to do more deals or to grow the store base next year. Now we haven’t given guidance for fiscal ’23 yet, but we are highly confident that we’ll hit our 3-year commitment of the 345 stores over the 3-year period. So we don’t have any concerns there. And so really that’s it.

And with respect to, could we do another 200 store growth here? A lot of that has to do with acquisition and the timing of those things. So we’re not the ones that ultimately control when somebody is for sale and at what price. But we are very active in the market. We have a dedicated M&A team, and they’re having a lot of conversations right now.

And like I mentioned before, in this current environment, it’s just becoming more and more difficult for smaller operators to get through the day, frankly, let alone to be able to effectively compete. So we see a pretty frothy M&A market, but we’re going to remain disciplined about where we buy the type of assets that we buy and what we pay for those assets. So this is one of the reasons we like to have organic growth along with M&A capabilities. So we don’t force ourselves into a box of having to buy assets that we wouldn’t otherwise like or overpay for those assets just to keep a growth rate moving in the right direction.

Ben Wood — BMO Capital Markets — Analyst

Okay. Thank you. That’s very helpful. And then just a quick one on the breakfast daypart. I know you guys mentioned it a little bit, but could you — where is the breakfast daypart relative to 2019? Just trying to figure out the 17% increase in same-store sales. Like how much of that is the new items from the new menu? Or how much of that is just guest traffic pattern recovery?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Well, what I’d tell you is, I think, the guest traffic is a result of the menu launch. We’ve got — we had new product news, we did put some media behind it. And we have some unique items. The Toastwich item is something that leverages our made-from-scratch pizza doughs. It’s highly craveable, it’s highly portable, it’s value priced and it’s something unique that you can’t get anywhere else. And we upgraded our coffee program at the same time. So, when we put those — that combination together, we started to see some improved traffic in the morning daypart. And then that benefited the entire store because not everybody gets a prepared food item but we sold the Toastwich sandwiches, we sold the Loaded Breakfast Burritos and people will buy other items across the store to complement those food products. So I think that really accrued to our benefit, like I said, we saw mid-teens increase in both traffic and sales during the morning daypart.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Chuck Cerankosky with Northcoast Research. Your line is open.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

Good morning, everyone. Great quarter. I want to talk a little bit about the kitchens. Do you have a schedule you can provide with us as you add kitchens to the acquired properties?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Chuck, I don’t have a schedule in front of me right now that I could share with you. I mean, we can follow up on that. But suffice it to say, we put those kitchens in as soon as we can get permitting available and contractors lined up. Now we’ve done roughly 40 of the Buchanan Energy stores so far. And I’ll tell you, we’re really happy with what we’re seeing in the performance of those kitchens, if you look at the Omaha market, in particular, where Bucky’s, I would tell you, — at what I would consider an above-average prepared food program relative to the industry. And we’ve already seen that we’re more than doubled the prepared food volume in those stores in Omaha, where our brand is more known.

Now if you go out into the Chicago suburbs, where we’re a little less known, we also have nearly doubled the prepared food volume in those stores just at a lower rate than what I would expect our normal run rate to be. And so that continues to grow. So we’re having great success in those conversions. But it will be probably the bulk of this next calendar year that we’ll be remodeling kitchens in the Circle K and in the Pilot acquisition, in particular, to get all those stores converted.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

So you’ve got 40 done out of all the acquired stores. Is that a good way to look at it?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. In the Buchanan Energy, we’re actually remodeling some of the Circle K stores as we speak. And then, we just literally finished the changing control at the Pilot stores recently. So we really haven’t got started on that process yet.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Bonnie Herzog with Goldman Sachs. Your line is open.

Bonnie Herzog — Goldman Sachs — Analyst

All right, thank you. Good morning, everyone. I wanted to ask you guys certainly about fuel margins, which have remained elevated. And I think you mentioned they are trending in the mid-30 CPG range quarter-to-date. But as we look at the past few days, crude has gone up very sharply and the outlook suggests it’s going to keep going. So just curious, could you give us a sense of where fuel margins are trending honestly, just even in the last few days or a couple of weeks and if in fact, they’ve turned negative, which I’ve seen in a few places. So, I’d be curious to hear that? And then on fuel gallons, given record levels of prices at the pump, have you guys seen any evidence of consumers simply not filling up their tanks and then and or decrease conversion into your stores in the last couple of weeks?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Hey, Bonnie, this is Darren. I’ll try to unpack all of that. I’d be curious to know where you’re hearing about negative fuel margins because that’s certainly not anything that we’re seeing or experiencing here. What we’ve seen so far, and I’ll just kind of box this over the last couple of days is that, certainly, underlying cost of fuel has gone up precipitously. We’ve also been able to take price on the street pretty aggressively. And so, we’ve been able to really balance that margin out at this point.

And from a gallon standpoint, this will seem counterintuitive, but when you see prices rapidly increasing like we have over the last week, the consumer behavior tends to be more of aggressive buying as opposed to not aggressive buying because people are afraid it’s going to be $0.20 more a gallon tomorrow than it is today. And so we’re actually seeing the opposite effect happen where our gallons have increased far beyond where our current trend line had been going prior to all this happening.

Now at some point, when it hits a peak, people are going to have full gas tanks and we’ll see a week or so lag of fuel volume and they will start to normalize again. So that’s kind of the short-term outlook. But I want to talk a little bit more broadly about this situation and put it into some context because I think what we’re seeing in the headlines, everything else is a little bit of hand ringing. And so when you think about $4 a gallon gas, it’s been a long time since we hit $4 a gallon retails in the U.S. The last time was in July of 2008.

Now certainly, that was during the financial crisis, and it peaked out at $4.06 a gallon. By today’s dollars, that would be $5.30 a gallon. So, when we talk about $4 a gallon gas, all $4 aren’t created equal. We’re really — we would need to get well over $5 a gallon before we start to see the same dynamic we saw in 2008. Now in 2008, you did start to see some demand destruction, but there is also a pretty significant recession taking place at the time. Unemployment at that time was 6% and rising, ultimately getting to 10%. When you look at — when you compare that to the situation we have today with 3.8% unemployment and a labor shortage and people starting to bring people back to work, companies starting to bring people back to work, there’s not a lot of that other structural impediment to growing fuel volume. Now there is a price at which people will start to change behavior. But we think that price is closer to $5 a gallon than it is to $4 a gallon right now.

And then the last point I’d make is the national numbers really don’t describe what goes on in the Midwest. And so the national numbers for retail prices of fuel are heavily influenced by the Northeast and the West Coast, which are well over $4 a gallon. As we sit here today in our market, we’re sitting just under $4 a gallon across our 16-state geography. And the Midwest tends to be pretty low relative to others. And part of that is because we blend a lot of ethanol. And ethanol right now is trading at about $0.70 or $0.80 below gasoline. And so, we just have some structural differences in our footprint. They’re different than the rest of the country and allow us to maintain that retail at a lower price and maintain the margins.

Bonnie Herzog — Goldman Sachs — Analyst

Thank you for that, that’s super helpful and great color and a lot of that makes sense. I guess the only other consideration is the low income consumer this year to see how that trends as the year progresses. Maybe one final question for me, just maybe a high-level question on your next fiscal year. I know you’re you’re not yet giving guidance, but given the expectations for crude to stay at elevated levels this year. How do you guys feel about your ability to deliver top quintile EBITDA growth for your fiscal year ’23?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, Bonnie, like you mentioned, we haven’t given any guidance yet, but we’re still very confident in our ability to deliver on that commitment. We’ve got a lot going on from a merchandising standpoint. And still, this situation aside, I do believe that’s a little bit more of a short-term situation. When you look at how crude oil is trading right now in the futures market, the market is backward dated pretty heavily, which implies that the traders are believing that crude is actually going to come down in the next several months versus go up. So, we’ll have to see how all that plays out. But I think the industry is still in a situation where the operating cost to run the business are just structurally higher.

And because of the fragmentation of the industry, they still have to extract higher margin to be able to offset higher operating costs, and that’s going to happen through retail fuel pricing. We’ve seen it over the course of the last several years with COVID, we’ve seen it in the extreme when demand destruction really accelerated at the height of COVID, we saw fuel margins accelerated at a really aggressive rate. So, we believe that those margins are going to persist. And then, we layer on everything else that we’ve got going on from a merchandising perspective, and we’re very confident in our ability to deliver those — that type of growth in EBITDA over the next several years.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Anthony Lebiedzinski with Sidoti & Company. Your line is open.

Anthony Lebiedzinski — Sidoti & Company — Analyst

Good morning and thank you for taking the question. So in terms of the operating expense guidance, it was certainly encouraging to see that you guys were able to reaffirm that guidance, even with the retail fuel pricing going up and likely to hurt the credit card fees. So, what’s driving that? I know in the quarter that you just reported you had a 2% reduction in store hours, is that expected to continue or are there any other factors at play, as far as operating expense management?

Steve Bramlage — Chief Financial Officer

Yes, Anthony, good morning, this is Steve. I’ll start with that. Nothing has changed on our end at all regarding our opex expectation for things we control in the quarter. So we did a really good job managing the hours within the stores. I’m confident we will continue to do a really good job managing hours in the store. There’s a lot of focus on efficiency within the operating organization today. We naturally will expand some hours seasonally, but we’ve incorporated that already. We know what the wage rates that are prevailing in our markets are. We’re competitive in those markets. I think we have a good, a very good handle on what we’re going to need to pay.

In that regard, I’d remind you, in the prior year, we did take some one-off impairment charges associated with putting new equipment into the store, etc. That’s part of the reason our percentage will tick down in the fourth quarter. So that sort of thing will not recur anyway. And so I do believe that the only real variable here relates to the credit card fees, which is associated with retail prices. So I think we’ve covered it at a $4 a gallon number in our range. And to the extent that would tick up, our credit card fees will tick up. And your guess on that would be as good as ours. But I don’t think there’s significant dollar risk associated with it as we sit here today at this point in the quarter.

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

And Anthony, I would just build on one of the things that Steve mentioned about the operations team in managing the hours is the — our labor productivity has really gone up a lot. We were — from a gross profit dollar per labor hour perspective, we increased productivity by 14% in the quarter. And so that team has really done a nice job. And at the same time, you saw the sales growth in the traffic growth so they were able to really manage the controllables and be very efficient and still deliver a great guest experience and deliver on the sales expectations. So very happy with that team. And as Steve mentioned, we don’t see any reason for that to backslide. And that’s the most significant part of our opex. So we believe we have that well under control.

Anthony Lebiedzinski — Sidoti & Company — Analyst

Got it. Yes, thanks for that color. And then, switching over to just to the prepared food side. So given how successful you have been with the breakfast menu changes, are you planning to do any notable changes to the rest of your menu?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, Anthony, absolutely. We’ve got a lot of different things in the works. We’re not prepared to talk about any of those today in any sort of detail. But absolutely, the prepared food team and the culinary team, in particular, are always looking at innovation and optimization as part of their mandate. And so yes, we definitely have some things coming, but not ready to talk about that at this point.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from Krisztina Katai with Deutsche Bank. Your line is open.

Krisztina Katai — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

Hey, good morning guys, and congrats on a good quarter. I just wanted to start on fuel when we’re looking at your price gaps versus peers. And just thinking about the smaller operators that do have to raise their prices to offset, the rising cost of their operations. Are you finding that your price gaps are stable? Are they widening in the current environment? And could that be a net benefit for you especially, when we’re thinking about you layering in your loyalty program to really communicate with the customer and stay top of the mind?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, Krisztina. When we look at that, we look at our prices as our differential to the low price in the market and to the high price and then the average price. And so what we’re seeing is we’re maintaining our delta versus the low price in the market. So we’re maintaining our competitive position. We are starting to see that differential versus the high price in the market starting to widen out a bit. And that really typically is a reflection of the smaller operators because they need to extract more margin. And so they tend to do that. So from that perspective, we would be able to gain some share.

And from what we’ve seen based on OPIS data and from our public company peers is that we are gaining share. Our — when we’ve normalized our fourth quarter to a calendar quarter and look at our public company peers, the other two they have reported were down in same-store gallons versus the prior year, and we were up nearly 5%. So we believe that even among some of the larger operators, we are taking share in fuel certainly versus some of the smaller operators, we are as well.

Krisztina Katai — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

Got it. That’s very helpful. And just, it sounds like you feel really good about your business, but maybe just tackling in, if you could talk a little bit about the health of your core customer. You implemented some price increases in January. You said another 5% to 6% coming in March. Just how are they feeling financially? And how are you planning your business for any kind of a potential pullback in spending from the customer in response to some of the high inflation that we’re seeing?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. Right now, we think the consumer is in pretty good shape. About 60% of our guests make over $50,000 a year. And a lot of those have seen some of the most accelerated wage increases. So the — so they’re actually making a lot more than they have historically. Now they’re also having to spend more in an inflationary environment. But so far, we haven’t seen any dramatic shifts in behavior among our core guests. So we think we’re okay there.

From a future-looking perspective, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind. One is, that we do have our private label portfolio, which has really started to take off and really provides a more affordable alternative for people that are seeking a deeper value. The other thing that tends to happen in our industry in times like this is that we are the beneficiary of trade downs from higher or more expensive forms of retail, so in particular in prepared foods. So, if you think about our prepared food offering today, it is already just naturally more value oriented relative to QSR fast casual and certainly then full-service dining.

When you think about a specialty pizza as an example, a whole pie that can feed three to four people being at around $16.50, $17 a pie, that’s a really great value for a family. In our breakfast menu, you can get a breakfast very easily for under $5. And so, when you compare that to QSR and to other restaurant concepts, we’re very much an affordable trade-down option. So, we have historically seen that our prepared food platform benefits disproportionately in this kind of environment as consumers start to seek more value.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from John Royall with J.P. Morgan. Your line is open.

John Royall — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Hey guys, thanks for taking my question. So, I had a couple of questions on kind of downside risks in the economy and things like that which I think you’ve mostly addressed. I guess the only remaining thing is, there are some out there, a lot of commodity analyst that are forecasting these $120 oil levels to persist for some time or even worse, I mean depending on the geopolitics. So, can you just go through how you would expect, I think, it’s relatively unprecedented types of levels that we could see that we have in the past, how would you expect the steel business perform, obviously we have, I think the demand? What would you expect on the margin side, with margin kind of start to come in a bit in that scenario where you start to see demand from off, from the consumer to pricing that you have?

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, John, again, I’ll try to put the crude oil price in perspective, like I did the gasoline business. So back in 2008, when we hit that $4.06 peak in gasoline, crude oil is actually at $140 a barrel in those dollars. And so today’s dollars, it’s about $183. So again, if we persist at $120, that’s expensive, but not nearly towards a peak from a historic perspective. And I think more importantly, from — to answer your question on the margin is regardless, of whether crude oils at 120 or 140 or 180 or not, the structural situation we have in this industry isn’t changing, underlying costs to operate this business is still going up. It’s still getting more expensive for the smaller operators to continue to survive.

And so retail prices are going to support expanded fuel margin to compensate for those costs. And until the point in time where we actually see some demand destruction, I think that dynamic is not going to change. And like I said before, I believe that we’re not going to get any sort of meaningful demand destruction vis-a-vis retail prices until we get closer to $5 a gallon and maybe even then we have to take over that before we start to see any meaningful impact there.

John Royall — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Understood. Thanks, very much.

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. I’m currently showing no further questions. I’d like to turn the call back over to Darren Rebelez for closing remarks.

Darren Rebelez — President and Chief Executive Officer

All right. Thank you, and thanks for taking the time today joining us on the call. I’d also like to thank our team members once again for their efforts this quarter. We’ve had a great year so far, and we look to close out fiscal ’22 on a high note. Fortunately, we demonstrated our ability to deliver results on our long-term strategic plan and fiscal year outlook in both normal times and during a global pandemic, and I’m confident we’ll continue to drive long-term shareholder value. Thank you, everyone, and have a great morning.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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