PRAIRIE DU SAC – A hunk of fresh ground beef hits the hot flat-top grill in the test kitchen at Culver’s headquarters.
Craig Culver, 68, uses a large, perfectly polished metal spatula to press the beef into perfectly round patties, with the help of an equally well-polished round metal canister. That grill isn’t quite hot enough, by the way, he comments.
I’ve watched (maybe secretly wishing I was in) the Culver’s commercials with the restaurant’s co-founder surprising customers, offering to bring them into the kitchen as he cooks their burgers. That was a tricky shoot, Culver says, because they were doing it during lunch hours at a Culver’s in Tampa, Florida.
When gray edges form around the patties, he explains, they’re ready to flip. The flip reveals a layer caked with crispy bits.
“That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
Culver can’t even estimate the number of burgers he’s flipped since founding the first Culver’s with his wife, Lea, and his parents, George and Ruth.
The chain, which on July 18 celebrated its 34th birthday, has become known for its burgers, cheese curds and frozen custard. You could call it the Midwest’s answer to regional chains that get national attention like the New York-based Shake Shack and California’s In-N-Out Burger. But Culver’s tops both of them in annual sales — $1.43 billion last year, compared to Shake Shack’s $359 million and In-N-Out’s $908 million according to the Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report 2018 by Technomics, a restaurant and food service research company. Culver’s ranks 42nd overall beating other regional stalwarts White Castle ($547 million), Steak ‘n Shake ($1.09 billion), and Waffle House ($1.33 billion) too.
If you can make it at more than 130 locations in America’s Dairyland, a state where frozen custard and cheese curds aren’t exactly exotic, then maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the chain has found success in 23 other states.
Opening more than 655 restaurants bearing the family’s name wasn’t initially part of the plan.
“My dream was to move back and open the A&W as Culver’s and live happily ever after in my hometown,” he said. “That was my dream, to be part of the community and the schools and the churches.”