What You Don't Know About Culver's

Culver's is a fast-food chain that originated in Wisconsin, aka America's Dairyland (that's what the license plates say, after all), and their menu is an ode to all things dairy. Even the non-cheese-topped burgers still come with a dab of butter, and they offer an incredible 59 different flavors of frozen custard in addition to chocolate and vanilla — although since the custard is fresh-made, there's only one flavor (plus the aforementioned chocolate and vanilla) available each day.

If you're a Midwesterner, or you happen to live in one of the 13 non-Midwestern states where the ever-expanding Culver's empire is taking over, you're probably already familiar with this regional fast food chain whom some claim is far superior to even the legendary In-N-Out and Shake Shack. If you're sadly marooned in one of the 25 Culver's-free states, well, we're sorry. Culver's isn't promising any further expansion in the near future, merely suggesting you take a road trip if you want to experience their deliciousness for yourself. Regardless of your location, though, there's probably plenty you don't know about this fast food chain known for its Concrete Mixers and oh-so-craveable ButterBurgers.

Culver's is one of the nation's favorites

And the survey says... Culver's is the nation's third favorite QSR, behind only Chick-fil-A and Tropical Smoothie Cafe. Wait, what survey? And what's a QSR? Last things first, QSR = quick service restaurant, which is a fancy restaurant-industry way of saying fast food joint. As for the survey, it was published in December 2018 by Restaurant Business, and reports data collected by Technomic Ignite consumer program from over 100,000 customers during the previous year.

Customers were asked to rate top-selling nationwide and regional chain restaurants on five different categories: service/hospitality, ambiance/appearance, food/beverage, takeout/convenience, and value. A different Restaurant Business report broke that same survey data down by category, singling out Culver's as the top burger chain. The second-ranked burger chain (which came in just after Culver's at number four overall) was In-N-Out, which beat Culver's out in value but was found to be less convenient and have food that wasn't quite as good since, you know, Wisconsin dairy products just make everything better.

And their sales figures aren't too shabby, either

While food service industry research firm's Technomic Ignite consumer data represented overall customer experience, the company also compiled a list of the top 500 restaurant chains in the United States that was based solely on sales figures. The restaurants ranked included not only quick service and fast casual chains, but also full service chain restaurants like Red Lobster and Outback. Not surprisingly, the chains with the highest overall sales volume were all the usual suspects, with McDonald's, Starbucks, and Subway taking the top three spots. Culver's didn't exactly crack the top 10, coming in at number 40 overall, with 2018 sales totaling a respectable (almost) $1.6 billion as opposed to $38.5 billion for top-selling Mickey D's.

Where Culver's deserves kudos, though, is for not only posting overall 2018 growth in units sold as well as sales (which McDonald's failed to show), but for the fact that it was the ninth overall burger chain in sales, beating out favorites like In-N-Out and White Castle. What's more, Culver's was miles ahead of the next custard-selling chain, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, which came in at number 87. Not to mention, even Serious Eats admitted that Freddy's custard "pales in comparison" to Culver's, so custard-wise, it's Culver's FTW!

The ButterBurger's more like a butterbun

The original "butter burger," whose name alone inspired Craig Culver's own creation was, in fact, quite a bit different from the ButterBurger we know and love today. The Wisconsin butter burger dates back to 1936, more than 50 years before Culver's ever made them a household name. It was created by Solly's Coffee Shop, a restaurant which is still doing business as Solly's Grille. The type of butter burger made by Solly's is served on a dry-toasted bun and topped with stewed onions and "a real glop" of butter that "melts as you're eating it," according to Solly's owner Glenn Fieber.

The Culver's ButterBurger, on the other hand, is not "cooked, marinated, dunked, fried or drizzled with butter," though that doesn't sound so bad. Instead, the top of the bun is lightly buttered before the burger is served because this is how Craig's mom used to make her burgers. Although Culver's think their original ButterBurger is good enough to stand on its own —  fresh, never frozen beef and fresh butter needing no toppings to gild the lily, in their opinion — you can actually get them in a wide variety including such adornments as cheese, mushrooms, onions, cheese, bacon, and yet more cheese. Yum, cheese.

Culver's was into pumpkin way before it went mainstream

While mega-chain Starbucks usually gets the credit (or blame, depending on who you're talking to) for starting the whole "put pumpkin flavor in all the things" trend, it turns out that Culver's was actually doing pumpkin way back when Starbucks was still in its infancy. In fact, Culver's was making this fall flavor fave over a decade-and-a-half before Starbucks started purveying PSLs to the pumpkin-craving masses in 2003.

The ButterBurger chain actually started adding pumpkin to their frozen custard back in 1986, and as Craig Culver laughingly says, "I like to say we were the first!" One thing's for sure: Culver's, at least, has been using real, fresh pumpkin in their custard from the get-go, while it wasn't until 2015 that Starbucks finally gave in to media pressure and put a little actual pumpkin puree in their pumpkin spice latte recipe.

​It's not easy to make the cut as a Culver's franchise owner

Culver's sales figures and popularity make it an attractive opportunity for would-be franchise holders. Forbes lists Culver's as number two on its list of best high-investment franchises for 2018, and it also made Franchise Business Review's (unranked) top 30 list of 2018's best food franchises to buy. Sounds like a no-brainer, at least, if you happen to have an extra $3,347,500 lying around, as this is what Forbes calculates to be the midpoint initial investment.

Not so fast there. It takes more than just money to make it as a Culver's franchise owner. Back in 1987, Culver's opened its very first franchise, and the experience was.. .not good. But, as co-founder Craig Culver said, "you learn something from mistakes," and this failure taught him to develop what Forbes would later characterize as a "very tight franchise system."

Under this system, prospective franchise owners must first spend a week working at a Culver's restaurant where they perform, and are graded on, every single role. Only if they perform well enough will they then be invited to spend four months in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin (population: not many) in a training program from which they must graduate — and don't forget about minor details like selecting a site, building a restaurant, hiring employees, and all that other stuff. So no, not easy, but still a pretty sweet gig if you can swing it.

Culver's deliberately targeted snowbird states for expansion

While Culver's website gives as their reasons for expansion into southeastern and southwestern states the facts that balmy beaches and shady palm trees go well with frozen custard and "desert lands call for cool, refreshing desserts," the real cause for their southeastern expansion may have more to do with targeting a certain demographic: the seasonally-migrating Midwestern snowbird. When asked about the company expanding its Florida franchising opportunities in 2014, director of public relations and communications Paul Pitas had this to say: "There's a lot of transplant Midwesterners and snowbirds who know us well down there." Jeff Liegel, owner of Culver franchiser group S&L Cos., similarly explained the expansion: "We had a lot of Midwest people familiar with Culver's, and where do they go in the wintertime? They go to Arizona and Florida."

Whatever the rationale behind it, Culver's targeted expansion seems to have been very successful — Arizona and Florida are the leading non-Midwestern Culver's states, with 31 and 61 franchises respectively (and more on the way!).

Culver's first owner grew up in the dairy biz

With its cheese, its custard, and of course the butter that makes the ButterBurgers Butterburgers, Culver's is more than a Dairy Queen, it's a Dairy Emperor. As it turns out, dairy has been the Culver family business for many a generation. The Culver restaurant chain was originally started not only by current chairman Craig Culver and his wife Lea, but also by Culver's dad George and his mom Ruth. Before getting into the restaurant biz, George had worked for the Wisconsin Dairies Cooperative as an inspector and grader of dairy farms, so obviously he was a man who knew a quality dairy product when he tasted one.

George himself had actually had dairy in his blood (milk in his veins?) prior to embarking on his career as a dairy inspector. His own father, Craig's grandpa, had been a cheesemaker. What's more, the cheesemaker's father (George's grandpa, Craig's... oh, never mind) had been a Wisconsin farmer. What type of farmer, Culver's history fails to specify, but we're going to assume cows were involved because, you know, Wisconsin. Plus it just makes for a more moooving story.

The ButterBurger was inspired by the same diner that inspired Happy days

It turns out that the ButterBurger has an interesting connection to a classic TV show. Craig Culver was chatting with an old college buddy of his about drive-in restaurants, and his friend mentioned the best burger he'd ever eaten, called a "butter burger," from a now-closed drive-in in Milwaukee called the Milky Way. That was just enough inspiration to get Culver's wheels spinning on what would eventually become the chain's menu staple — he just had to figure out how to make it first.

But Culver's ButterBurger isn't the only thing the Milky Way inspired. It turns out this diner may have been a teen hangout of local boy Tom Miller, who would later become co-creator and producer of the TV show Happy Days. The Happy Days gang spent a lot of time hanging out at a restaurant called Arnold's, whose exterior was modeled after the old Milky Way. 

So there you have it, a link between Wisconsin's favorite burger chain and the TV show that made Milwaukee famous.

You may find love in a basket of Culver's cheese curds

Every once in a while, in the fry basket at Culver's, when two cheese curds love each other very much... well, they might stick together and form a double-sided cheese curd that comes out in the shape of a heart. Culver's suggests you can pull these apart like a very gooey wishbone (just make sure you do it while they're piping hot for the biggest pull), and of course they're eminently Instagrammable, Facebookable, Snapchattable, etc., as well as making an excellent excuse to hit up Culver's on Valentine's Day.

There are a few more reasons to love Culver's curds, no matter what shape they're in. For one thing, they come from a very specific supplier, the family owned and operated La Grander Hillside Dairy in Stanley, Wisconsin, and are provided exclusively to Culver's. For another thing, if you're into sharing the love with Culver's kitchen workers, cheese curds are reputed to be the quickest and easiest thing on the menu for them to make.

​The Culvers got into fast food via A&W and Mickey D's

Craig Culver first started working in the restaurant business at age 11, not long after his his father purchased an A&W Drive-In in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1961. The reason George Culver made the switch from dairy inspector to restaurateur was because he'd been promoted to Head Field Man which necessitated a move to Union Center, some 50 miles away, and evidently Union Center proved less than popular with the family. At any rate, George decided to get out of dairies and into drive-ins so they could all move back to Sauk City. Young Craig started off washing out root beer mugs, and soon graduated to floor mopping, car hopping, and cooking.

After Craig graduated from UW-Oshkosh with a biology degree, he had no intention of getting back into the family restaurant business, turning down an offer to manage a supper club his family owned called the Farm Kitchen. Instead, they sold, and Craig was left jobless, biologists evidently not being in high demand in 1970s Sauk City. Eventually he moved to Madison to take a job with McDonald's, where he says he earned something of a business degree in restaurant management. In fact, Craig was the one who talked his parents out of retirement and into buying back their original A&W franchise, the one that that later turned into the very first Culver's some 23 years after he washed his first root beer mug there.

Culver's didn't always treat their employees right, but they're getting better

A few years back, Culver's was not performing too well in one area — that of employee relations. They made at least one list of America's worst restaurants from the standpoint of places to work, and the 2012 Diner's Guide put together by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) gave Culver's their lowest grade of 0 for paying a liveable wage (considered to be $9 an hour, which Culver's didn't meet), providing paid sick days (they didn't), and offering opportunities for advancement (Culver's did not meet their minimum standard of 50 percent promotion). By the time ROC's 2014 Diner's Guide came out, Culver's had, um... It's hard to tell for sure when all categories are marked either "does not meet criterion" or "declined to answer," but it's not the best look, is it?

In 2017, however, things had evidently started to turn around to some extent. Business Insider found, with the aid of Glassdoor data, that Culver's ranked as the sixth-best fast food company to work for. Glassdoor ratings (as of June 2019) are also largely positive, with a 3.6 rating and comments such as "good job, good company... it felt like family" and "very good hours and decent pay." Indeed.com reviewers give Culver's 3.7 out of 5 stars, and their comments include "fast-paced and productive," "enjoyable work environment," and "awesome coworkers and managers." It seems things may really be looking up for Culver's crew members after all.

Culver's pays homage to its home state

Even though (as of June 2019) Culver's has locations in exactly half of the 50 states (not counting D.C., which is also Culver's-less), they never forget their Wisconsin roots. In fact, they are known for using Wisconsin-sourced ingredients whenever possible. Beef from Midwest-raised beef (we're assuming Wisconsin is included there), butter from a local creamery, milk for the custard from local cows, and cheese from Wisconsin dairies. Culver's even launched a "Help Us Support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers" campaign which led to them supplying care packages to 800 dairy farmers nominated by customers. These care packages, aka Culver's gift cards, were probably greatly appreciated in these days of declining dairy prices.

Another thing Culver's has done to show some love for its home state is to introduce burgers named for and/or highlighting its products and roots. 2017's limited-time Wisconsin Big Cheese Pub Burger came complete with a whole lot of cheese — American, cheddar, and Havarti, to be exact. In 2018, Culver's upped the ante with its Oktoberfest-inspired Pretzel Haus Pub Burger, a nod to Wisconsin's German roots. This burger featured beef patties topped with Wisconsin cheddar, Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce, pickled onions, bacon, and a horseradish/mayo/mustard bistro sauce on a pretzel bun made by a Milwaukee bakery. This burger must have been as amazing as it sounds, since it won a MenuMasters award for showcasing home state products.