Your votes are in, Milwaukee, and you have selected the winners of OnMilwaukee's Best Dining 2011. We're announcing the results of this readers' poll, including our editors' pick, in a series of articles that run all October long during Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com.
In a fast food industry dominated by mega conglomerates, often-unappealing, bland meals, one Wisconsin company has found a way to break the mold.
Culver's opened its first Wisconsin store in 1984 in Sauk City, a small central Wisconsin town along the Wisconsin River. George Culver purchased an A&W Root Beer stand and renovated it into the forerunner of the chain we know today, operating with his wife, Ruth, his son, Craig and Craig's wife, Lea.
Today, with Craig running the company, the chain is one of Wisconsin's most-recognizable brands and has an expansive reach not just in Wisconsin, but also across the Midwest and throughout other regions of the country, too. In fact, by the end of the week, when a new restaurant opens in Lansing, Mich., Culver's will have 443 locations, almost all of them independently owned and operated, in 19 states.
Outside the Midwest, Culver's has been a hit in the Arizona market, thanks in no small part to the number of Midwestern transplants that now call the Valley of the Sun home. After a slow start, business is starting to take off in the Texas markets and franchises in Colorado and Utah have been successful, too.
"The strategy has always been to grow organically," Culver's Director of Public Relations Paul Pitas says. "We started here in the Midwest, crossed the borders and once it became successful, we pushed out further. But when you start leap-frogging around, that's when you get in trouble."
Such was the case in Texas, where Pitas admits the company followed the "if you build it, they will come" theory. Sales there were slow to start out but slowly, over time, business has improved and those locations are starting to enjoy more and more success.
"It's beginning to take off a bit now," Pitas says. "But it takes time, it's been a good experience for us."
The success story is unique, as is the business model. That's not by accident, says Pitas, and is part of the reason Culver's has been able to grow so quickly.
The first attempt at franchising came in 1987, when the Culver family partnered with a restauranteur in Richland Center. After a year, the venture had failed and the family didn't attempt to franchise the concept again for another three years.
During that time, the company established a new set of guidelines for franchisees.
"We don't advertise for franchise operators," Pitas says. "We have what we call a "discovery week," where interested people can come in, see what the company is like and we get to do the same in order to see if that person is the right person for Culver's."
Those who pass the screening process then undergo a 16-week training program, attending classes at the corporate headquarters – still in Sauk City, working in stores and even assisting with a store opening, all before getting to work on their own store.
Once those individuals have a store, the company expects them to take an active role in the organization. It's not uncommon to find the owner working the cash register, the grill or even cleaning tables during busy times. It's all part of the job.
Greg Howe's professional career started like many, at McDonald's. He worked his way up the ranks from crew member to manager to store manager and when he decided he wanted to branch out on his own, he decided to go with Culver's, which was just starting to reach the Milwaukee area.
A trip to the original Culver's solidified his interest.
"When you walked into that first Culver's in Sauk City, it was unlike anything you've seen anywhere else," Howe says. "It was a family-run restaurant. They took all those family values and turned into a franchise that's been not only a success for me, but for an awful lot of restaurant people."
Today, Howe has three stores and he's very satisfied with having gone the chain route. The ability to take advantage of Culver's' purchasing and advertising power has made a significant difference in the way Howe runs his business.
"No doubt about it," Howe says. "As an individual, we couldn't come close to getting the prices we get on our commodities. They negotiate pretty hard to get a fair cost for us so in turn, we can keep things affordable for our customers."
The stores also put an emphasis on local products. For example, the custard – all of it, nationwide – and much of Culver's dairy products come from the state. Their beef comes from Wisconsin and other nearby Midwest states.
But what Pitas and Howe both say the company sets itself apart from other fast-food chains because of its focus on quality, cleanliness, hospitality and especially community involvement.
Every Culver's location engages in a number of different charity and community-minded fundraisers, beginning with "Scoopie Nights," during which 10 percent of all sales is donated to a charity. The Culver's VIP Foundation provides about $250,000 annually in scholarships for employees and the company also teams up to help local blood centers by providing free custard to donors through the "Give a Pint, Get a Pint" campaign.
"In that aspect, Culver's is way different than any other chain that I'm aware of," Howe says. "They do more things every single month, whether it's schools, charities or teams. It's a very unique thing for a chain to be as big a part of the local community."
Being part of the community is something Culver's stresses from the top.
"There isn't a day that goes by when one of our stores isn't involved in some sort of benefit," Pitas says. "That's kind of a staple of what we do."