Quick – name a fast-food chain that has taken the nation by storm with its authentic, great-tasting fare and has spread like wildfire everywhere, even on the coasts, while staying true to its flyover country values. And it’s not Chick-fil-A.
Culver’s has achieved all of that in the 38 years since Craig Culver, his wife, Lea, and his parents opened their first hamburger joint in humble Sauk City, Wisconsin. The maker of Butter Burgers and fried-cheese curds, pot-roast sandwiches and, crucially, custard sundaes has grown from that original institution in south-central Wisconsin to a chain of 850 units in 25 states today, making it essentially a coast-to-coast phenomenon.
Incredibly, the chain has grown to system-wide sales of nearly $2.5 billion last year from $1.73 billion in 2019.
And Culver, who still runs the company, is looking to add hundreds more stores. He never quits. The chain is rolling out its first-ever food truck for a summer tour of 17 cities in which Culver personally plans to “take a bit of Wisconsin to the rest of the space that we do business in,” as he recently told QSR Magazine.
More to the point for most of us, Culver’s also is releasing a new marketing campaign in which the brand is sharing its small-town Wisconsin roots with the rest of America. The debut TV ad, “From Wisconsin with Love,” showcases Dairyland staples and hospitality with scenes of farm fields, of customers enjoying made-to-order items, of employees greeting guests. Culver himself narrates the ads and is shown briefly scooping fresh-frozen custard in archival footage from 1984.
I love Culver’s story for what it says about the possibilities for companies spawned in flyover country. And it resonates personally with me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Sauk City is barely a half-hour from my Wisconsin hometown, Reedsburg; I did some freelance writing work for Culver in the 1990s; and I love going to local Culver’s today in Michigan since the chain started putting outlets in greater Detroit several years ago.
And here’s something that Culver’s gladly could have shared in their new TV ad if they’d been here to film it: My family and I visited the Culver’s in Lake Orion, Michigan, recently on an evening and unwittingly found ourselves in the midst of a weekly Bingo session of a few dozen customers. Who was pulling and announcing the numbers? The store’s owner!
While Chick-fil-A’s amazing success is well-deserved and, in fact, unparalleled, Culver’s has achieved fantastic things as well. As someone who has covered business journalistically for decades, here are four lessons I have drawn from their success that many other business owners and entrepreneurs in the heartland might learn from:
Stay authentic. Craig Culver has never stopped promoting great-tasting Butter Burgers (so named because the buns are buttered, not because there’s butter in the burger) and artery-clogging custard even though the fashions of the day might suggest otherwise. That’s who Culver’s is.
The food is inevitably very tasty — try Culver’s walleye sandwiches during Lent instead of some dry cod — and is the highest-quality fast food you’ll find anywhere. But don’t expect Culver’s to try to talk you into a kale salad instead of onion rings and pretzel balls with American-cheese sauce.
Feature native fare. Chick-fil-A made the chicken sandwich, a staple of Southern cuisine, popular nationally in ways that it never had been before. But Culver’s has made even further reaches, with items such as fried cheese curds.
First of all, few people outside cheese-producing states even know what a cheese curd looks like, so they can’t appreciate the supple chewiness and salty flavor of the cheese precursor that comes directly from the vat at the cheese-making factory. But Culver’s unapologetically has turned fried cheese curds into a thing.
Empower your people. One of Culver’s favorite facts about his business is that more than 100 front-line employees of Culver’s have proceeded up through the company after starting as teenagers.
“That is very exciting for me,” he said. “And to know that as a leader, to know that you may have had a little bit to do with that development along the way, and see these people become not only good at the business, but wonderful people as well — you can’t separate one from the other.”
Culver contined, “I’ve always said, we serve Butter Burgers, frozen custard, cheese curds, and on and on, but the real business we’re in is the people business. And those who are best in the people business, no matter what business you might be in, are going to be the best amongst their competitors.”
Grow with confidence. Culver’s has grown steadily and even spectacularly at times, such as during covid, when its drive-throughs were a whir of activity that became reminiscent of the lines of cars that snake around every Chick-fil-A.
And now Culver has the confidence that a homespun marketing campaign, touting small-town, Midwestern values and traditional fare, will help the chain grow even further.
“That’s what it’s about,” he told QSR. “It’s about energizing your brand, letting those who don’t know much about you [know], teaching them who the heck we are, and having them get excited about us as well.”