From Sauk City with love

Small-town roots grow into nation-wide franchise


SAUK CITY, Wis. — With 970 restaurants in 26 states throughout America, the Culver’s franchise is well-known for its famous ButterBurgers and frozen custard. When the first Culver’s restaurant opened in Sauk City in 1984, however, popularity had yet to take hold.

“People didn’t know what frozen custard was, and they didn’t know what a ButterBurger was,” Craig Culver said. “We knew what we were doing because we had been in the business for a long time, but we just about didn’t make it that first year.”

Culver was only 11 years old and his brother just 9 when their parents entered the restaurant business in 1961 with the purchase of an A&W franchise. Over the next 23 years, Culver’s parents sold the restaurant and bought it back twice before disenfranchising from A&W and starting the first Culver’s in Sauk City in 1984.

Culver said they lost money in the first year, broke even the second year and became profitable the third year. The franchise has grown steadily in the last 40 years to become a well-loved franchise. Culver said they could not be successful without their suppliers making quality products available.

“Our roots are right here, small-town Wisconsin,” Culver said. “The dairy farmers have been our neighbors and friends and suppliers for a long, long time. We depend on them in a big way.”

The franchise sources the dairy products they use from three creameries in Wisconsin, Florida and Missouri, with the majority of the products coming from the Wisconsin location.

Annually, the franchise uses 1.7 million pounds of butter, 9.4 million pounds of sliced American cheese and 19 million pounds of cheese curds, and sells 2.25 million gallons of chocolate custard and 7.2 million gallons of vanilla custard.

Menu items also include sliced Swiss cheese, Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce and blue cheese crumbles.

Custard is made in small batches in each store. The flavor is more unique than ice cream due to its lower temperature at serving. Taste buds can absorb the flavor better because they are not numb from the cold temperature. The rest of the menu items are cooked to order, ensuring freshness and quality in every location.

The concept of the ButterBurger came to Culver before they launched their first store. He was talking with a friend from the Milwaukee area and told him about a burger joint that buttered the bun and called it a butter burger. The frozen custard came when Culver was attending college in Oshkosh and stopped at a frozen custard stand for a vanilla cone.

“When I heard butter burgers, a lightbulb went off,” Culver said. “I thought I would do that if I ever got the chance, and we did get the chance.”

Culver’s connection to the dairy industry began with his parents. His mother grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and his dad had a career as a field representative for Wisconsin Dairies before entering the restaurant business. The close connection has prompted the family to remain vocal in their appreciation of farmers and support of the National FFA Organization.

In a 10-year partnership with FFA, Culver’s has donated 1,000 blue jackets to the organization and given over $100,000 to chapters through a FFA essay contest. They have donated over $900,000 through the Scoops of Thanks Day, which offers a scoop of custard for $1 and donates all proceeds to FFA.

They also promote a program called To Farmers with Love, which has given more than 3,000 farmers a complimentary meal through a social media campaign that nominates farmers for the freebie.

Culver’s continues to promote dairy with new flavors of the day which have been displayed on signboards in front of the store since day No. 1. While quality products are a priority, Culver said service is what keeps people coming back to the restaurant. When hiring team members, he said they focus on creating leaders.

“Our business is about people and surrounding ourselves with the right people who know how to say please and thank you and my pleasure, and mean it,” Culver said. “It boils down to leadership.”

When someone is hired at a Culver’s location for any position, even corporate, they are required to spend their first week working in a restaurant. This allows them to connect with the guests and learn the business from the ground up. Culver tells new franchisees that just because they put a blue oval road sign out front of their place does not mean they are guaranteed success.

“You’ve got to drive the business each and every day, no different than farming,” Culver said. “I like to think of ourselves as the little guy that’s going to do whatever it takes.”


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