Craig Culver, his wife, Lea, and his parents opened the first Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers restaurant (a converted A&W) in Sauk City, Wis., in 1984. Culver’s now is the 11th largest burger chain in the U.S., with more than 450 locations in 19 states. Craig Culver remains its CEO and its guiding force. Last August, the chain launched a new ad campaign, themed “Welcome to Delicious,” that introduces some of the chain’s local suppliers. He spoke with BurgerBusiness.com about what he’s learned along the way and what he hopes to achieve. Culver’s plainspoken, Midwestern style doesn’t need questions, so they’ve been omitted here. He still makes solid sense.
One of the really valuable lessons I had to learn when we had three or so restaurants was to let go a little bit. I was the guy. I was going to make all the decisions. Mainly because I didn’t want anyone else to make the same dumb mistakes I made. What I found out later in life, when I became a little better manager and better leader, was that if I don’t let anyone make mistakes, they’re not going to grow at all. Even if they do mistakes, if they’re really the right people, they’re going to learn from those mistakes and correct them and feel better about themselves and more self-confident, not only as a manager of a business but just as a person.
My name’s on the door. But that’s we always did in all the businesses we had. It started in 1961 with a little A&W drive-in. My dad put his name there. It was just another A&W, it was Culver’s A&W. When we had the Farm Kitchen Resort, it was Culver’s Farm Kitchen Resort. Our name was always on the sign. When we did the Culver’s thing, it was going to be just plain Culver’s.
My dad was a true entrepreneur. He never dreamt he could fail. That never crossed his mind. It never crossed my mind either until we opened Culver’s and just about failed! Never dreamt I could fail until I faced the reality of it. That was a lesson, too. We did whatever we had to do to succeed. If it meant working early morning until late at night seven days a week, that’s what we had to do. That’s why I didn’t really want to be in the restaurant business when I was growing up: I didn’t want to be my mom and dad working morning and night, seven days a week. And that’s exactly who I became. I became my parents.
You don’t forget your roots. I hope that comes through our “Welcome to Delicious” campaign because that’s what we’re talking about. The values of small-town America. I believe we can take them to big towns, too. I’m believer in people.
I don’t lie awake at night worrying about the business. I believe our company is so close. We’re a good team, we really are. We kind of know what each other’s thinking. They believe in the same things I believe in. And I’m not just talking about the people immediately around me. I’m talking about everybody at Culver’s. Our franchise partners. The managers in the restaurants. The receptionist downstairs at the front desk. We believe in who we are and what we do, and in taking care of each other. It’s just a culture we share.
Every chance I get, I want to spread our culture. We have management folks in [headquarters] today. I was down talking to them this morning, and I told them, “Every opportunity to have you folks here for a few days, that’s a culture-building opportunity that we have; a chance to spread the message. I can’t do it if you don’t believe in it. You have to be the messenger, you have to be the leader in each of our restaurants.” That’s how we’ll continue to make the right things happen.
We did $770 million in sales last year. So we’re going to top $800 million this year. And I’m guessing late this year we should open our 500th restaurant. I would never have imagined it when we almost didn’t make it through the first year.
We’ll hit a billion in sales. And we’ll do it by not cutting any corners. That’s another lesson I learned from my father. I remember him sitting me down—and this was before Culver’s, back when we owned the Farm Kitchen Resort in Baraboo [Wis.]—and saying, “You don’t cut corners. You don’t cheapen the product.” And that still resonates with me. Everyone on my team knows that principle. They know we’re not going to cut corners.
I don’t dwell on how big we are. The most important thing for me isn’t adding restaurants. That’s not my ego trip. What we have to do every year is grow our business in the restaurants we have. That’s what we have to do. In 2009, we didn’t do it. We were down 3.5 points in same-store sales that year. We’d never been negative before. Never. Even though it doesn’t seem like that much, that hurts your morale. We’re not a publicly traded company, so there aren’t going to stockholders screaming at me, but it doesn’t matter. I want success for each of our restaurants just like each of our franchisees do. So that negative [comp sales] hurt.
We never thought we’d be hurt by the recession. We didn’t. We dug ourselves out a bit in 2010 and last year we had a nice year, up about 5 points [in comps]. But toward the end of 2011 we really started coming on strong, right when we started “Welcome to Delicious.” And the first quarter of 2012 we were up 16 points. We’ve dropped back a little but we’re still up 10 points year to date. We’ve got a great year going and I hope it doesn’t stop.
About six years ago people were saying the burger business was done, like it was heading for a graveyard. Well, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The burger business is alive and well. I mean, they’re coming out of the woodwork. There’s a new burger concept opening every day. It seems like every town and city has their “better burger” place. Every chef seems to have own burger concept now. The category’s not dying, and we’re very much alive, too. I think we’re one of the originals in the “better burger” category. We don’t think of ourselves as a “fast food” restaurant. That’s no our mindset, but we certainly compete with the fast- food folks and the “better burger” people and everyone else. But I love our spot. I think it’s a sweet spot in the industry.