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Grilling up success

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In 30-plus years, Culver’s has become a truly iconic Wisconsin brand. Mention ButterBurgers or fresh frozen custard and people across the state — and increasingly across the country — immediately know what you’re talking about.

It’s fitting then that Phil Keiser, Culver’s president and CEO, will be the next speaker at IB’s Icons in Business presentation series on March 23 from 8–9:30 a.m. at The Madison Concourse Hotel.

Keiser has been with Culver’s since 1996 and in 20 years he’s seen a lot of change at the Prairie du Sac-based company. For starters, Culver’s has gotten a lot bigger. When he started there were just 44 Culver’s restaurants; today there are 566.

Keiser says in the early days roles and responsibilities weren’t as clearly defined as they are today either. “We all needed to wear many hats to support the system and oftentimes we just had to take on an aspect of the business that was outside of our skill set or experience base. There was often no one else to do it so we just jumped in, figured it out, and hoped for the best. But that experience really helped me learn new parts of our business, which prepared me for the responsibilities of today.”

Among Keiser’s many responsibilities is helping the company continue its steady growth with new franchisees and in new states.

“Our approach to growth has really not changed very much; we still have a one-restaurant-at-a-time process,” Keiser notes.

However, as the company has grown, Keiser says Culver’s has become more disciplined in awarding new franchises, creating training systems that give the franchisee deeper understanding of the business, providing more detailed building and equipment plans, approving new building design, and green-lighting other business processes. “The obstacles were just recognizing that our processes and systems could be better. Once we did that, we just got busy explaining why a change was needed.”

In the past two years, Culver’s has added more than 30 restaurants per year (34 in 2014, 31 in 2015). Of the growth last year, nine restaurants were opened in Florida, bringing the total in the sunshine state to 21, says Keiser. And the company is fast approaching grand openings in two new states, Georgia and North Carolina.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful with growth is because existing franchisees were definitely in an expansion mindset in 2015,” Keiser notes. “We also welcomed many new franchisees of different backgrounds who saw Culver’s as a great franchise opportunity.

“We have over 40 more restaurants in the pipeline for this year, so we should exceed 600 restaurants by year’s end.”

Combating challenges

In spite of the company’s success, Culver’s still faces many of the same challenges as any other business.

According to Keiser, its greatest challenge is attracting, training, and retaining the best talent in the industry — something the Culver’s is very focused on.

“Our people are great, which helps us tremendously because good people attract more good people,” he explains. “Having everyone on the True Blue Crew understanding and believing our values; if we all have the same beliefs about the business it makes it much easier to take on the challenges of the day.”

Keiser says another immediate challenge for the company is communicating with guests who now have an increased awareness and concern around the ingredients and sourcing of their food.

Instead of forming the company’s communication around buzz terms such as antibiotic-free and organic, Culver’s is telling the story of agriculture through its “Thank You Farmers” program to help educate guests about where their food comes from.

Keiser says Culver’s is achieving this is through its relationship with the FFA and commercials such as the North Atlantic cod spot that’s on TV now.

“Our TV spot not only focuses on how our cod is prepared, but also lets guests know that we share their concern about sustainability,” Keiser notes. “In the commercial one of our longtime Cod suppliers, Terje Korsnes, talks about how our cod supply is managed by the fishermen in the Barents Sea.”


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