Failure is impertinent to success. That was a key point Craig Culver emphasized in his speech to Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce members and guests Jan. 23 during the chamber’s annual meeting at the Colonial Club, 301 Blankenheim Lane.
Culver recalled his idea to launch Culver’s Frozen Custard and Butterburgers and the obstacles he overcame.
Starting in the restaurant business when he was 11 years old, Culver said it was never his intention or dream to stay in the business.
He said he never wanted to limit his career to solely the restaurant business after watching his mother and father work so hard and passionately day after day. Culver recalled the history beginning in 1961, when his family owned an A&W restaurant and then bought the Farm Kitchen resort at Devils Lake State Park. At the time Culver and his siblings dedicated nights, weekends and spare time to help his parents run the restaurant.
After graduating from UW-Oshkosh with a degree in biology, Culver sought a different future than the restaurant business his father felt so passionately about. Once home from college, Culver’s father asked him to be the general manager of the Farm Kitchen.
Culver declined. He had seen first-hand the hard work his parents dedicated to the business and the countless hours that accumulated.
“My dad got mad at me a whole bunch of times, but that’s one time my dad never got mad at me,” Culver said. “He said, ‘Okay, if that’s how you feel, you go find your dream.’ I had no clue what my dream was, but my dream did not include the restaurant business.”
After the Farm Kitchen was sold, Culver was without a job. His sister, Georgia Culver, lived in Madison next door to Tom Showers, owner of a local McDonald’s.
Georgia insisted her brother talk to Showers about a job, and he emphasized once again that he did not want to be in the restaurant business. Finally, Culver agreed to talk to Showers and they had an informal interview before a formal interview, but Culver was not hired. Showers and his team called back two more times for a final count of four interviews.
“I mean, how many people can interview you after a period of time and not hire you?” Culver asked. “They finally hired me after four interviews, so I went to Madison to work with McDonald’s.”
Culver spent three and one-half years learning the fast-food business. Culver said he owes McDonald’s for his business degree. He learned the system’s approach, learned about inventory, waste and labor controls.
McDonald’s taught Culver many aspects of the restaurant business, but his father and mother instilled many valuable lessons that a company could not teach. One essential characteristic learned from his parents is the philosophy to never take the cheap way out with any product.
“What my dad told me just reverberates in my mind all the time,” Culver said. “I’ll never cheapen our products.” What his dad told him still impacts the Culver’s operation today.
Craig’s mother, Ruth Culver, was the “queen of hospitality,” and instilled the importance of people. “It’s the pleases, the thank yous and the smiles,” Culver said. “If you attach those to service, you’re going to be a force. I don’t care what you’re selling. You could be selling bleach, and you’re going to sell a lot of it.”
It was these key factors that finally forced Culver to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit from his father. Culver remembered it was not very likely that he could go to the bank and borrow what he needed to purchase the A&W. That night he gave his dad a call and asked to stop over. When he arrived at his parents’ home, they thought they were retired but little did they know a new opportunity was about to be proposed. When Craig Culver walked in his father was leisurely playing solitaire and his mother was reading the newspaper and watching TV.
“I said, ‘Dad, let’s buy the A&W back for the second time.’ It took my dad about five seconds to say yes. He was an entrepreneur and risk taker,” Culver said.
On the other hand, Culver remembered his mother — who he said most likely still has the first dollar she ever made — thought she was retired.
“As the story goes, we took a family vote, and she lost two to one,” he said.
For the next six years, George and Craig Culver ran the A&W as partners. Eventually, they were approached by a group of investors who wanted to buy the A&W. The entrepreneurial skills that possessed the Culvers also made them sell the store. Within the contract of selling the store, Craig Culver had to stay for two months training the new employees and managers.
That’s when Culver said he learned about passion. He told the chamber audience he did not see passion in the new employees or managers – a passion that today, he stresses to everyone in the business.
Someone can be trained to work the grill, take an order, taught to clean, but not to become a leader, be enthusiastic or passionate about what they do, Culver said.
After two months, Culver moved on, partnering again with his parents and his wife, and bought a supper club — the Ritz, which the family operated as a supper club for two years.
At the same time, Culver’s former A&W in Sauk City was not seeing its best days. The Culvers had sold A&W on a land contract, so if something happened to the store, they would get the store back.
“Honestly, I wanted that place back,” Culver said. “I couldn’t wait, because I had an idea of what I would do with it if I got it back, and that was, of course, Culver’s.”
One day, the Culver’s family finally got the phone call and a recap of the conversation was the A&W managers requesting the Culver’s to take it back. Happily, Culver said, they would. Culver realized the importance of passion to grow employees, to challenge them and believe in their abilities. This passion grew his idea even more and the A&W building transformed into a blue-roofed restaurant, complete with white and blue colors, with sales of ButterBurgers and Frozen Custard.
Culver said frozen custard from Milwaukee and Oshkosh was the best ice cream he had ever tasted in his life.
The name for the ButterBurger stemmed from his college days. One afternoon at the Ritz, Culver and his friend were talking about drive-ins. His friend mentioned the best burger he ever ate was at a drive-in, and it was called the “ButterBurger.”
“When he said ButterBurger, it sounded so good to me,” Culver said. “It was like a light bulb went off and I said, ‘I’m going to use that if I ever get the chance.’”
Culver’s officially opened July 18, 1984 in Sauk City.
Although the restaurant business had certain adversities associated with it, the family had never before had such a difficult time. When the family opened the operation, no one knew what a ButterBurger or what custard was. Hardee’s and Dairy Queen (both neighbors to the new restaurant) had full parking lots, but the blue-roofed building had two cars belonging to Craig and his father. Fear of failure, a nearly unknown feeling to the family, now began to creep into the back of Culver’s mind.
“[People] were saying, ‘Craig, somehow or another we’re going to make it through this year.’ Boy, I didn’t believe it,” revealed Culver, “We have literally never failed at a business and I thought ‘Man, here we go.’”
The family, employees and customers are what carried the family through its first year and eventually into a nationally expanding chain.
“I learned how important it is to have people around you supporting you,” said Culver, “and I had those people. I had my parents and I had my wife, Leah.”
Incorporating this experience with his franchise partners and team members throughout the chain, Culver said he strived to make the partners and employees know their importance to the success of the business. Referring to all employees, regardless of position, as franchise partners, Culver emphasizes that the success for the business comes from the daily interaction each person has with a guest.
After three years, the restaurant became profitable. This did not signal the end of adversity or the sting of failure for the group. The family was approached by a small group to franchise Culver’s in nearby Reedsburg. Although the name on the building read “Culver’s,” the loose franchise agreement made them two starkly different restaurants. Within a short time, the first attempt at franchising the grand idea of Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers was a failure, when the second restaurant went out of business.
“My first franchise experience was…a failure,” Culver recalled, “But you learn something from mistakes, you learn something from failures. You learn that you’ve got to get back up and go at it again until you win. You don’t give up.”
Failure was not an option. However, Culver said, the proximity to failure taught the restaurateur valuable lessons that helped to create what Culver’s has become today.
Eventually, a second attempt at franchising proved successful and Culver’s steadily began to grow its place in the restaurant industry. Ironically, Culver said their success did not stem from advertising, radio or television. It was what is called “Four Walls Marketing.”
“When that customer came in, they were our advertising piece,” Culver said. “We had to create that experience for them, and we had to put a great product in their hand so they would tell other people about it.” Soon Culver’s had customers from 50 miles away coming to see the blue roof, sample ButterBurgers and frozen custard.
Culver also delivered another hard-earned lesson: Balance is the key to living a happy and well-rounded life. While work may consume an individual, it is integral to find balance in the business, family and spiritual aspects of life. He concluded with a slight jab at local Culver’s franchise partner, Duane Sprecher, making sure Sprecher knew the importance of what he was saying. Culver explained how Sprecher literally lives in the restaurant.
Culver recalled that he missed many events his three daughters were parts of. At the time, he thought the business was the most important thing. Instead, he said, it is better to experience a little of everything with a dash of balance.
“If you can find that balance or at least work towards it, you’re going to be better at all walks of your life,” Culver said. “That’s what I believe, and I continue to strive towards that today.”
Auction raises $1,300
The Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce annual meeting also included a silent auction, business awards, a review of chamber programs and a preview of the chamber’s upcoming events.
Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Smith presented a PowerPoint outlining the chamber’s status as a non-profit organization that represents chamber members with more than 10,500 employees, including 14 volunteer organizations, and is run by three full-time staffers.
Approximately 110 people attended the annual meeting.
The silent auction, which helps support the chamber’s scholarship fund, offered prizes such as a $100 VISA gift card from Summit Credit Union, a spa package, Milwaukee Brewers tickets and more. Sally Carpenter was the auction’s top bidder, earning five different prizes. The auction raised a total of $1,300.
The event also recognized outgoing chamber board members and chamber ambassadors.
The Ambassador Award is given to the person who has accumulated the most points by attending ribbon cuttings, visiting new businesses and recruiting new members as an Ambassador. The winner for this award was Cheryl Namyst; second and third place went to Carol Jones and Herb Quandt.
The board members leaving the board were Ann Becker, Cheryl Namyst, Kim Ripp and Lill Quandt. New chamber board members welcomed include Michael Allen, Deb Dotzauer, Jones and Stacey Riechers.
The Sun Prairie Chamber Bowling Tournament is scheduled to take place at Prairie Lanes, 430 Clarmar Dr., from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15. This event offers people a chance to network while having fun with families and businesses.
The event costs $20 per person before Feb. 8 and $25 after Feb. 8, and includes three games of bowling, shoes and the pizza buffet. Individuals who are not bowlers can participate for $10 to eat pizza and network.
For more information, call the chamber at (608) 837-4547.