As Culver’s celebrates 35 years, founders say they never dreamed restaurant would grow this big
Original Sauk City restaurant opened July 18, 1984
SAUK CITY, Wis. — It was July 18, 1984, mostly a typical Wisconsin Wednesday night. Prince topped the charts with “When Doves Cry”.
Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign was well underway. Robin Yount’s three runs helped the Brewers top the Mariners in Seattle that night, with Rollie Fingers notching his 20th save of the year. Along Highway 12 in Sauk City, then 34-year-old Craig Culver was hoping his conversion of his parents’ old A&W Drive-in would pay off, inspired by his Butterburger and frozen custard.
“It’s been 35 years now, and we just about didn’t make it through that first year,” says co-founder Craig Culver, who has seen the Wisconsin-based Culver’s chain grow to 716 restaurants with an opening this week in Auburn, Indiana.
Inspired by his father George Culver’s entrepreneurial spirit, and his mother Ruth’s taste for hospitality, Culver had no idea he would be embarking on a journey over the next three decades that would make this Wisconsin original one of the biggest players in the fast-food industry. In 2019, it was rated the top burger chain in the nation, according to a Restaurant Business Survey.
“My father was the real entrepreneur,” Culver said. “He had no training whatsoever and he took a leap. That’s the neat thing about entrepreneurs. They don’t think of failure. They don’t see hurdles, they don’t see the pitfalls, and all the bad things that can happen. They are just so passionate and driven, and that was my father.”
Together, his parents ran the Farmhouse Kitchen in Baraboo, with the young Culver children helping every day. In 1961, George and Ruth bought the A&W Drive-in on Highway 12 that would 23 years later become the first Culver’s Restaurant.
“The two fit together like a glove,” Culver said of his parents, “they balanced each other and they bought that little A&W Drive In in 1961, right where Culver’s sits today, and look what it’s become.”
What it has become is nothing short of a true blue Wisconsin success story. Even the Culver’s sign that exists today is oval, because they simply used the same oval sign that A&W used in 1984, and just filled it in with what has become the class Culver’s logo of today.
“The family will tell you they never dreamed that Culver’s would grow to the success it is today,” says CEO and President Joe Koss, who took over in 2016, “but it truly is an American success story. It’s a Wisconsin success story.”
And how it’s grown has been through Craig Culver’s careful design. It sounds a bit cliche, but it works for Culver’s: Find good people and carefully choose restaurant owner-operators who fit the company culture.
“It’s always been about one successful restaurant at a time,” Koss said. “That’s what we’re concerned with. When that next restaurant opens, are we helping it be as successful as it can be?”
Just like its menu, the front office support staff at Culver’s Headquarters along the banks of the Wisconsin River is filled with Wisconsin originals. Some have worked with the company for decades, working their way up from grill workers and cashiers to handling some of the most important jobs in the company.
Two of those people are Jody and Dale Ballweg. The two locals started in the late 1980s at the Sauk City restaurant, just looking to make a few bucks with a summer job at Culver’s. More than 30 years later, Jody serves as the director of franchisee training, teaching new owner operators the Culver’s roadmap to success. Dale is a director of operations. Oh, and by the way, they have been married for 23 years. Culver’s is the only place either of them has ever worked. Now, even their 16-year-old son has taken on a job at the Baraboo Culver’s.
“We never had any concept of it going beyond the one restaurant where we were working,” Jody said. “They presented us each with an opportunity.”
It’s the Culver’s culture that keeps them coming back to work every day.
“Those are the values that have been instilled in me from day one”, Dale said. “And 35 years later, here we are, still with those same values.”
Now, Culver’s restaurants cover 25 states, offering a friendly taste of Wisconsin to people as they travel the country, as far away as Arizona, Florida, and other states. The chain is representative of small town Wisconsin values, leading to an underdog story of how a little A&W Drive-in turned into one of the giants of the industry.
“I still like to think of us as the overachiever, the little guy,” says Craig Culver, “and even though we’re 700 restaurants strong now, I always want us to have that attitude of being the one that’s going to do whatever it takes and we can’t lose that, regardless of how big we get.”
Learn more about this Wisconsin original, 35 years in the making here.
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