Culver's opens 500th restaurant

Craig and Lea Culver's franchise recently opened its 500th restaurant in Michigan.

PRAIRIE DU SAC | The Culver’s franchise is celebrating a milestone this month with the opening of its 500th store.

Actually, make that 501. Two stores — one in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and another in Wixom, Mich. — opened simultaneously March 3.

Co-founder and chief executive Craig Culver and Lea Culver, along with their public relations officer Paul Pitas, talked about the growth of their franchise, which will have been in business for 30 years July 18.

Craig said he never could imagine this kind of growth 30 years ago, and certainly not 53 years ago when his dad George bought the old A&W Drive-In where the current Culver’s is in Sauk City.

Culver’s was founded in 1984 by Craig and Lea. The family operates nine of the restaurants, and the rest are owned by independent franchise partners.

They opened their 100th store in 2000, yet Craig remains modest about the growth of the Culver’s franchise.

“In 2001 to 2007 we were opening 40 restaurants a year,” Craig said. “The economy crashed and it dramatically decreased. Now we’re ramping up again.”

He said Culver’s growth is limited compared with other franchises because the restaurants are known as brick-and-mortar establishments. Other franchises open locations in strip malls or shopping centers and lease the space.

“I don’t want to grow that fast,” Craig said. “We never expected to be at 500 restaurants. But here we are, it’s happened and we’ll continue to grow.”

Lea reminded Craig of what his dad always said: “It’s not important how many restaurants you have — it’s how many good restaurants you have.”

“That was a good comment and it really stuck,” Lea said. “He’d say, ‘When are you going to get to 600?’ He was such a great cheerleader. He always had a coupon in his pocket for somebody and a hat in the back of his car. He was always ready to talk to somebody about Culver’s.”

Culver’s continues to grow. There are 15 more locations under construction, and 35 new stores are set to open this year.

George and Ruth Culver opened the A&W Drive-In in 1961 at a time when Craig wasn’t considering going into the family business.

“I told my dad I didn’t want to stay in the business,” Craig said. “I didn’t want to become my mom and dad. It’s hard work. It’s a lot of hours. When I came home from college, Dad sat me down and asked me to become the general manager of the Farm Kitchen. I said no. If I had to do it over again I’d do it.”

After Craig worked for a McDonald’s in Madison for two years, the young couple, with the help of Craig’s dad, bought the A&W and moved back to their home town of Sauk City.

That was going on 516 stores ago.

Craig and Lea attribute that success to George and Ruth Culver.

“Learning the systems approach from McDonald’s and taking care of guests by providing great hospitality, quality and never skimping — that all came from his mom and dad,” Lea said.

She said each individual Culver’s is like a family all its own.

“Because we are individually owned and operated, they become their own little family unit,” Lea said. “It’s all about caring about your team members and giving them the tools to be the best they can be.”

Craig said the organization isn’t just about burgers and frozen custard.

“We talk about the people all the time more so than we talk about the Butter Burger and frozen custard and how important they are to our business,” Craig said. “It’s the people that are the magic to the business.”

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