Butterburger Boom

Craig Culver, founder of Culver's restaurant chain, talks to Bradley students. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
April 19, 2016

Craig Culver never wanted to become a restaurateur, yet he couldn’t resist the allure of running a small drive-in. His entrepreneurial touch turned one small Wisconsin success story into the first of nearly 600 successes in the restaurant chain noted for its Butterburgers and frozen custard.

Culver shared his success story as the fifth lecturer in the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Distinguished Entrepreneur Speaker Series.

Culver’s parents, the late George and Ruth Culver, opened their first restaurant when Craig was young. The next generation Culver turned down an opportunity to take over the family business when his parents retired, but discovered he didn’t have the passion for a career with his biology degree.

“Dad told me to go find my dream,” he said. “I never really wanted to stay in the restaurant business, but I became my father. The entrepreneurial spirit burned in me. I wanted my own place and knew what I wanted to do.”

Father and son joined forces and, in 1984, they bought back the Sauk City, Wisconsin A&W Drive-In that birthed the family’s first restaurant dreams in the 1960s.

Despite early struggles, this venture became the foundation for today’s familiar brand. The first successful franchise opened in 1990, and the company has continued to expand.

Culver credited his parents’ concern for people as the key to franchise success.

“It truly is about people, no matter what business you’re in,” he said. “We took care of our guests and workers and created an experience. Food is great, but it’s just another place without a smile and ‘thank you.’”

As the franchise expanded, management developed an intensive process to screen potential franchise owners. All prospective franchisees go through a week of observation at a restaurant, a long interview and four months of training before they’re awarded a business.

That process, in addition to leadership development opportunities for employees, reinforces the culture throughout the franchise’s 25,000 employees.

“We have a strong culture and we can maintain it as long as we’re surrounded by the right people,” Culver said. “Positive leadership attracts positive people. Don’t you want to be around positive people?”

He also encouraged students to find a passion and chase it. For Culver and his father, passion for people drove their business ventures and helped them endure rough stretches.

“If you’re not persistent with something you love and you give up, you’ve really failed,” Culver said. “If you have a passion for what you’re doing, give it all you’ve got. You’ll fail, but you can get back up.”

The Distinguished Speaker Series was developed three years ago to highlight achievements of some of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs. Past speakers include the founders of Priceline.com, Redbox, Barefoot Wine, and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.