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Culver’s secret sauce: Fair wages, good humor, and lots of ButterBurgers

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Craig Culver looks back on his family restaurant’s 30 years with great pride. “I had a grand plan,” he laughs. “I thought we’d operate one restaurant and live happily ever after. But I almost didn’t make it that first year.”

In fact, his family pulled him through. “Financially, I didn’t have the wherewithal,” he admits, “but they believed in me and my wife, Lea.” A stranger to the word failure, it was probably the only time in his life he came close to becoming familiar with the term.

“I had people around me in that first year assuring me that they’d do whatever it took to get to the end of the year. They were there for me. I lost lots of money but kept after it.”

Things got better in the restaurant’s second year, when it broke even, and by year three, Culver’s was well on its way and pulling a profit.

Culver’s started its franchise arm, CFSI, in 1987, and three years later, the first successful Culver’s franchise restaurant opened in Baraboo. Between 2000 and 2007, more than 40 restaurants were opened each year.

Then, the economy collapsed.

Now 500-plus restaurants and 25,000 employees strong, Culver’s blue-and-white signs can be found in 21 states and are quickly multiplying coast to coast. The franchise remains on track to open 35 restaurants this year, the most since 2007.

George and Ruth Culver's A&W restaurant, in Sauk City. In 1984, the restaurant was converted to the first Culver's Frozen Custard and ButterBurger location.

“Our growth isn’t that fast in comparison to others,” insists Culver. “We’ve grown at a controlled pace.”

In fact, that was one lesson he learned the hard way, after trying to grow too fast in the 1990s. “I think we opened 14 restaurants in one year when I wasn’t ready with people,” he said. “We had to slow down and actually stopped franchising for about a year until we had the infrastructure in place.”

With hundreds of restaurants now and more on the way, is there a limit? “No,” he answers. “It could all end today and I’d be fine. But my dad once said, ‘Culver’s is not about how many, but how many good restaurants we have.’ We grow organically.”

The early years

It all started in the family kitchen. “My mom was a great cook,” Culver said. In fact, his parents, George and Ruth, owned several restaurants over the years: a Sauk City A&W; the Farm Kitchen in Devil’s Lake, where Culver met his wife, Lea; and the Ritz, a supper club in Baraboo.

In 1968, George and Ruth sold the A&W on a land contract. Years later, they were excited to be able to buy it back. The family then defranchised from A&W, renovated the space, and opened the first Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurger restaurant on July 18, 1984.

While Culver will always credit his mom’s cooking — she’d spread butter on hamburger buns and grill them until they were crispy — he admits the name ButterBurger wasn’t an original one. There were others that used the term before him, like Kroll’s in Green Bay and a Milwaukee establishment as well.


Jul 27, 2014 01:42 am
 Posted by  Michael Miller

I am a fast food junkie. Culver's has the best customer service - and second place isn't even in the same zip code. I have never been to a Culver's where I wasn't greeted by a smiling employee ready to take my order. Contrast that with McDonald's or Burger King where the quality of customer service and food varies by location. Culver's has created a corporate culture where their employees enjoy working and it shows. Over the decades I have witnessed so many fast food workers at McDonald's and Burger King who hate their jobs, and that hatred comes out in the poor way that they treat customers. You might be wondering why I ever eat anywhere but a Culver's when I want fast food. Unfortunately, Culver's can't be found everywhere in Wisconsin - unlike McDonald's which seems to have restaurants even in small towns. By the way, I have never worked at a fast food restaurant so that is not the reason I am biased towards Culver's. That bias is simply because they have better food and the best customer service.

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