Skip to main content

Craig Culver shares his business know-how with next generation

Built through Wisconsin values – Culver’s founder inspires young Lakeland entrepreneurs

share arrow printer bookmark flag

May 17, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – In 1984, Craig and Lea Culver, along with Craig’s parents George and Ruth, opened the very first Culver’s in Sauk City in a former A&W restaurant his parents had previously owned and operated.

“It cost us a lot of money that first year and we almost failed, but we didn’t quit,” Craig said. “If entrepreneurs get knocked down, they always get back up because they believe so strongly in their goals. It’s more than running a business – it’s having a passion.”

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone, especially in Wisconsin, who hasn’t heard of Culver’s.

The restaurant chain now has a national presence with more than 900 locations in 26 states.

And although Craig stepped away from his role as CEO in 2015, at the age of 65, he continues to share his knowledge of starting and growing a business in the State of Wisconsin to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Craig said his giving back efforts cover many areas of the community – students, in particular, hold a special place in his heart.

“Most universities today have either an entrepreneurial class or club,” he said. “I get a kick out of speaking to those kids and hearing their stories as I get to share mine, too. And if you can pique their interest, that’s cool. And not all the students are kids. There are 30- and 40-year-old students, too.” 

A Lakeland University visit 
Recently, the Culver’s founder stopped by Lakeland University to chat with a room full of budding entrepreneurs – serving as a guest speaker in the Entrepreneurial Management course taught by Stephanie Hoskins, Lakeland’s Herbert Kohler & Frank Jacobson chair of business & entrepreneurship. 

The event was organized by students in Launch: Lakeland Student-Run Businesses, including Aidan Hager – a Lakeland University junior majoring in marketing and business administration and the incoming president of Launch.

Like many others, Hager’s connection with Culver’s Restaurants goes back to his childhood experience, like many families in Wisconsin – most recently serving as a crew member at the Sheboygan location.

“I’ve been around Culver’s my whole life,” he said. “Culver’s was that after-church restaurant, a place where my whole family could enjoy and afford. While I’m only a crew member, I wanted to learn from someone who created all of these ideals.”
Wisconsin upbringing
A native of Sauk City, Craig said he realized early on that his family was different from those of others he grew up with.

“I never had envisioned myself staying in the restaurant industry,” he said. “Since 11 years of age, I (remember) watching my parents in the business. We weren’t a normal family in the respect we were always working. There were people on vacation, and we were serving them. I was always a little jealous of my friends who would go on family vacations.”

Craig said he watched his parents work hard – from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week.

“That’s the restaurant business,” he said. “I was determined never to stay in it. But I’m sure glad I did.”

// Culver, left back, said at Culver’s, they have the ability to “make a difference by sharing your heart with customers by being a good person.” Photo Courtesy of Culver’s Restaurant

Craig attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology before being hired to manage a McDonald’s.

Culver said his parents taught him so much about growing a business.

“Neither one of my parents were college educated, and my father was handicapped with a loss of hearing and eventually blind,” he said. “Yet, what they were so good at was surrounding themselves with the right people.”

Craig said people are the strongest asset of any business.

“Talented people, yes, but also people with good hearts,” he said. “People who know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘my pleasure’ and mean it. It seems so basic, doesn’t it? That’s a core value at Culver’s… surrounding ourselves with good people. Who doesn’t want to do business with someone who respects you and are kind to you and makes you smile? It makes a ButterBurger® taste better.”

Craig said he believes Culver’s common courtesies cross industry lines. 

“It’s really in any business,” he said.

Craig said the biggest challenge any business owner faces is bringing the right people into the organization, whether it’s a restaurant or a law firm. 

“If a potential new hire’s values are totally different from the leader of the organization, it is not going to work,” he said.

Changing with the times
Craig said he believes technology – which includes self-serve ordering kiosks – will always play a role in their growth.

“Technology is important to us,” he said. “If that is where the market steers us, I’m afraid that is where we will have to go.”

Craig said he’s of the opinion face-to-face business will become more of a competitive edge in the years to come.

“I may be totally wrong with that but I don’t think so, and I’m willing to take that risk,” he said. “We are going to empower our people to look somebody right in the eye and take and deliver that order and put smiles on the customers’ faces.”

Craig said the COVID-19 pandemic also ushered in change for the growing restaurant chain.

“On March 12, 2020, we shut all of our dining rooms down,” he said. “Many things were going through our minds. Our owners were saying, ‘We are going to let people go.’”

Initially, Craig said he was of the same mindset.

“I gave that 24 to 48 hours of thought – then there was an epiphany,” he said. “I said, ‘Wait a sec, we have a drive-thru. We can still put people through our drive-thru, treat them with the same hospitality they want and would have received in our dining room and that we want to deliver.’”

Craig said the pandemic also taught the company a few things.

“We learned we needed to make some adjustments to help get the cars through efficiently,” he said. “Double drive-thrus and other technology were created… We learned a few lessons during that time and I was taught a few lessons as well.”

Craig said not only did Culver’s survive 2020, but it had a record year – opening 50 restaurants with no dining room service. 
“The next year, 2021 we had a bigger year,” he said. “We had yet another monster year in 2022, followed by this year, which is off to another great start.”

To date, Craig said there are 913 restaurants throughout the country.

“And unless something goes crazy wrong, as I’m worried about the interest rate environment, we should hit our 1,000th restaurant sometime next year,” he said.

Culver said every entrepreneurial journey has its share of speed bumps, and Culver’s is no exception.

“I believe things happen for a reason, and if you truly believe in what you do, you overcome them,” he said. “But, you better learn from those mistakes, because if you keep making the same ones, you’re not going to be in business any longer.”

Craig said his father often shared his business advice with him, especially in the early years of managing growth – which he said he continues to carry with him and share with others giving entrepreneurship a go.

“One of the things my dad said to me many years ago when we had maybe 100 restaurants – ‘It’s not important how many restaurants you have, what’s important is how many good restaurants you have. You’ve got to take care of what you got, and if you do that, I believe it will take care of other things as far as growing more restaurants.’”

Craig stepped away from the day-to-day business in 2015 but continues to serve as chairman of the board and is still involved in the business.

He said he cannot envision being disengaged from it.

“When we opened restaurants years ago, I made every one of those grand openings,” he said. “I not only knew the owners and managers, but I knew everybody. I can’t do that today, but that’s why you have to surround yourself with the right people and let them do their thing.”

Craig said if they’re the right people, they will do the right thing. 

“We are successful at doing that,” he said. “Just like my parents did.”
Making a difference
Craig said one of the reasons he’s thankful to have been in business for so long is the opportunity it has provided for him to give back.

“We have the ability to make a difference by sharing your heart with customers by being a good person,” he said. “Everybody has that ability by the way.”

Craig said by recognizing not every customer who comes through those doors is having their best day, goes a long way.

“We have the opportunity to possibly turn their day around by giving them a smile and a please and a thank you and having them dine with us,” he said. “I love what we do at Culver’s, and I love what we do in the restaurant industry as a whole. There’s something about breaking bread and we have broken bread with a lot of people.” 

Craig said he does what he can to connect with community and educational organizations – like Lakeland University – to share his story of building a business in the Badger State.

“I (recently) spoke to a group of senior citizens in my hometown,” he said. “That was fun and many of them have known me since I was a kid. I speak to chambers of commerce and other business groups. There are many ways of giving back. One of the easiest ways might be to write a check, but giving of my time is probably the most valuable thing I own.”

share arrow printer bookmark flag

Trending View All Trending