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Friday, 01 August 2014 00:00

Five questions: Craig Culver coming to Elkhorn's Matheson Memorial Library

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ELKHORN -- Local residents will have the chance to enjoy an evening with Craig Culver, founder of the Culver’s restaurant chain, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 in the community room at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn.

Culver will discuss how his family got its start in the restaurant business, his philanthropy work and his current role with Culver’s Restaurants Franchising System.

Although the chain started with only one location in Culver’s hometown of Sauk City, it has expanded to more than 500 locations. There are six Culver’s restaurants within a 20-mile radius of Elkhorn alone.

Matheson Memorial Library Director Lisa Selje and her team are hosting Culver as part of their adult summer programming for the community. After attending a lecture Culver gave last year, a library patron, Judy Tucker, recommended him as a guest speaker. Selje and her staff reached out to Culver and were delighted to hear that he’d not only be happy to come tell his story, but donate his time as well. He didn’t even ask for gas mileage reimbursement, she said.

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"I think it’s important to hear the Culver’s story from Craig himself because he is the CEO of a successful Wisconsin business that grew from one restaurant in Sauk City to a chain of over 500 restaurants," Selje said. "He can share his success story with others who have the dream of starting a business. His family’s story is an inspiration to others and is a good example of a quality work ethic, small town values and hard work.

"This is a company that always gives back to the community, and from my perspective has always been library friendly. I can remember back for many years, how we always had the Culver’s coloring contest every April and children who colored a picture about their favorite book would receive a coupon for a free frozen custard at Culver’s."

Walworth County Sunday caught up with Culver recently and asked him five questions about his career, plus a bonus question for good measure.

Q: Ranging back over your time as a young man working at an A&W to now, running a family company that opened its 500th location in May: What have you learned about the American dream?

A: It doesn’t come easy. (Laughing) My dream when we opened Culver’s was to take the opportunity to move back to my hometown of Sauk City with my family and have a successful business. As the story goes, and I’ll tell more of the story in Elkhorn, we just about didn’t make it the first year. We weren’t too successful at first, but we didn’t quit. We just kept going. When I say we, I mean my wife and my parents, who were my partners. We just kept going and didn’t give up. I continue to learn every day; I continue to make mistakes, but somehow or another we make it.

Q: What role has family played in Culver’s inception and growth?

A: It’s still a family-owned business today, and it started as a family-owned business. My parents and wife were and are the founders, and that’s how I was brought up in the business. My dad first bought a little A&W drive-in in 1961 and that was our family entry into the food service business. We’ve been in it ever since. I’ve been in this business from an 11-year-old to a 64-year-old.

There are so many families that get involved in our business as franchisees as well and our team members. It’s a family business for many families.

Q: With a cheese-making grandfather and a dairy inspector/grader for a father, it’s safe to say that you’ve got dairy in your blood. How did this affect your choices with the Culver’s chain?

A: Being from Wisconsin it’s just natural to be around the great dairy products that we produce. It was unavoidable and I’m glad it was. We are so proud today to export Wisconsin dairy products outside of the state lines.

Our custard mix is all manufactured here, all the cheese is from right here in Wisconsin and our cheese curds are all made here as well; and we sell a lot of them. It’s funny, I go to Arizona or Florida or wherever, to our restaurants, and people rave about the cheese curds. Most of them don’t even really know what they are, but they can’t stop ordering them.

Wisconsin represents quality to so many people outside our state and the food aspect is only part of it; they also consider folks from Wisconsin as authentic people, hardworking people and people who are relatively easy to deal with.

Q: What would you say is the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered during your tenure as a businessman?

A: I had an epiphany many years ago about people. At one time in my career I think I took people for granted. Naturally everyone will do their job and love what they’re doing, I thought. Well, that isn’t necessarily the truth; I don’t think I valued people as much as I should have many years ago.

I’ve realized since then how important our people are to our business, whether it’s a 16-year-old in their first job at Culver’s or some folks in our different professional positions; our people are the magic of the business. I want our people to know how important they are, not only to our business, but also to their communities, schools and churches.

Q: In our difficult economic times, what single piece of advice would you give to a small business owner working hard to stay afloat and grow?

A: Don’t give up. I’ve been there. Here at Culver’s, we just about didn’t make it. I was close to giving up, but I had some people around me, namely my wife and parents, that offered support and encouragement.

They said, "Craig, somehow we are going to make it. We will do what it takes."

If you truly believe in what you’re doing, don’t give up. That sticks with me yet today. I try to never lose sight of that attitude. I always want to be the overachieving little guy who always tries to just do what it takes to get through the next day, week and year. No one is going to give you anything. There is nothing free. You have to earn everything.

Bonus question: What’s your favorite item on the Culver’s menu?

A: I’d have to say the bacon double deluxe. I usually just have a single butter burger, but if I didn’t have to worry about my weight, I’d have one of those every single time, and a vanilla cone to go along with it.

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