Culver’s co-founder shares family business success story

March 20, 2018

This piece is presented by the Prairie Family Business Association.

Craig Culver thought he’d found an ideal recipe for a successful restaurant.

Start with the vanilla frozen custard he’d loved from a neighborhood stand as a kid.

Add “ButterBurgers,” a concept a friend shared while they were discussing childhood ice cream spots.

“Frozen custard and ButterBurgers. Can’t go wrong with that,” Culver said.

He’d grown up in the restaurant business, from washing mugs at his parents’ A&W to helping in college at a resort and supper club they owned.

He’d managed a McDonald’s and learned from the restaurant giant.

So when he opened the doors of his blue and white Culver’s in July 1984 in Wisconsin, he had a good feeling.

“And literally nobody came,” he said.

“We thought we knew the business so well, my dad and I, and we just about lost everything that first year.”

But the family stuck together and stuck with it. Culver, who had vowed not to spend his adult years working constantly like he saw his parents do, did just that.

“I said I didn’t want to work early in the morning until late at night, and guess what we were doing,” he said.

After taking what he calls a big loss the first year, “we turned the corner, and the second year we broke even. And the third year is when we made a bucket at the business, and things started to grow for us.”

Craig Culver with this father, George.

Culver will detail his experience in family business as part of the 2018 Prairie Family Business Association annual conference April 12 and 13. For information and to register, click here.

“It’s a chance for me to inspire some younger people, hopefully, and you’re never too old to take a risk on something,” he said. “My father was 64 when we started Culver’s, so he’s a co-founder.”

Culver’s opened a couple of locations in the late 1980s after the first one started taking off and then decided to try franchising.

“We did and our first franchise failed,” he said. And I said I’d never do it again. Obviously, I did, but all these little challenges come across, and if you’re keeping your eyes open, you learn something. We learn from our mistakes and challenges, and that still happens yet today.”

Culver’s has grown to 650 locations but retains a close connection to its roots. Culver visits the stores often, including the Sioux Falls locations, and tells his teams about how his parents began in the restaurant business.

“They weren’t professionally trained, but they surrounded themselves with talented people, and most importantly they had a heart and knew how to say please and thank you and please come back again, and they meant it,” he said. “If you don’t surround yourself with those types of people, you can’t build a culture or an organization. That’s what we’ve built on and we continue to strive at doing.”

His three daughters are company shareholders but don’t work in operations. He has three grandchildren and said he’d welcome any family into the company.

He also saw value in leaving the business himself for a time. At McDonald’s, he learned the financial end of the restaurant industry.

“In our businesses, you were on the floor, working alongside your team and your guests, and that was the focus. That should be the focus. For my dad, as long as there was enough money in the checkbook we were fine, but the McDonald’s people taught me the other side of the business, which was very, very important going forward.”

Building the ButterBurger brand: How Culver’s took root in Sioux Falls

He looks forward to sharing his story in South Dakota, where he’s a founding member of Sutton Bay and tries to return at least once annually. His franchisee, Nick Magera, has grown the Culver’s brand in Sioux Falls to five locations plus one in Marshall, Minn., and one near Denver, and is a member of the franchise advisory council.

“We do quite well in South Dakota. We do quite well everywhere, as a matter of fact, and it’s so cool for me,” Culver said. “Culver’s was totally foreign to South Dakota back when, and today it’s very, very well known. I love South Dakota.”

The focus companywide is on continuing to improve, he said.

“We’re not perfect today, by any means, but we continue to strive to be better every day. And it’s a lesson for all of us no matter what you’re doing.”

The Prairie Family Business Association is an outreach center of the USD Beacom School of Business.

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Culver’s co-founder shares family business success story

ButterBurgers and frozen custard might sound like a recipe for success — but as the founder of Culver’s will share, his family business was built on much more.

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