'Quality' Serves as Business Hallmark for Culver's

Ray Mueller
Culver’s was recognized by the Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators for its support of agricultural education through Thank You Farmers with the Outstanding Cooperation Award.

EGG HARBOR – For Culver's Franchising, the ingredients of market success are “no compromise on quality” and an emphasis on owner-operators, the Wisconsin based company's president and chief executive officer Joe Koss told attendees at the 2017 dairy symposium sponsored by the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association.

Koss, who was with Culver's for 19 years before becoming its leader in 2016, noted that only eight of the 629 restaurants in 24 states are owned by the company. Those sites combine for more than $1.2 billion in sales per year.

Wisconsin has 130 Culver's outlets, followed by Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri in total numbers. The most distant restaurants are in Arizona, Texas, Idaho, and Colorado. Koss said the most recent growth has been in Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

Franchise history

George Culver opened the first restaurant in a converted A&W root beer stand in Sauk City on July 18, 1984. A franchised venture failed in Richland Center three years later but success followed in Baraboo by 1990, marking the start of a chain of 14 franchises in southern Wisconsin by 1993.

“We're unique in the quick service sector,” Koss pointed out. All sales are made “cook to order,” all of the beef for butter burgers is fresh (never frozen), and all of the fresh custard is made on site, he explained.

Culver's sees itself as being “a people business” with some 30,000 employees, Koss stated. We think that having only owner-operators, not any outside investors, “makes a difference,” he remarked.

For the emphasis on quality, there are strong links with the suppliers, Koss continued. A significant portion of that supply comes from within Wisconsin, he noted.

The most recent annual use statistics include 1.1 million pounds of butter, 154 million slices of cheese, 7.3 million gallons of custard, and 6.5 million chugs of milk that are part of the children's meal menu, Koss reported.

He added that the 30 million orders placed for cheese curds, which he described as “Wisconsin's secret to the world,” is a doubling during the past five years.

To acknowledge the providers of those suppliers, Culver's established its “Thank You, Farmers” campaign, Koss noted.

He also pointed out that the company has given more than $1 million to FFA chapters during the past five years and is a financial supporter of the soon to be constructed Wisconsin Agriculture Education Center in Manitowoc County.

Market challenges

But Culver's is among the entities facing challenges in ever-changing markets and consumer attitudes and preferences, Koss cautioned. He cited “consumer curiosity” about food sources and ingredients along with the emergence of prepared food outlets and home deliveries.

The “food to go” movement and “Amazon effect” have not taken root at Culver's, Koss pointed out. “Culver's is not delivering.”

In what he described “a tough battle,” Koss referred to “a battle on perceptions versus the facts” in the agriculture and food sectors.

On one of the issues within that spectrum, he told the Wisconsin State Farmer that Culver's does not have any restriction on dairy products made with milk from cows being treated with bovine somatotropin (rBST). He said the company relies on science to answer the question on whether food safety is a concern with the use of rBST.

What particularly bothers Koss, who succeeded retired founding family member Craig Culver and the late Phil Keiser as CEO, is that the public “hears much more from activists than from those in the food industry” about the issues on which perceptions do not square with the facts.