Culver's Proves Flyover Brands Can Flourish Nationwide


Quick – name a fast-food chain that has taken the nation by storm with its authentic, great-tasting fare and has spread like wildfire everywhere, even on the coasts, while staying true to its flyover country values. And it’s not Chick-fil-A.

Culver’s has achieved all of that in the 38 years since Craig Culver, his wife, Lea, and his parents opened their first hamburger joint in humble Sauk City, Wisconsin. The maker of Butter Burgers and fried-cheese curds, pot-roast sandwiches and, crucially, custard sundaes has grown from that original institution in south-central Wisconsin to a chain of 850 units in 25 states today, making it essentially a coast-to-coast phenomenon.

Incredibly, the chain has grown to system-wide sales of nearly $2.5 billion last year from $1.73 billion in 2019.

And Culver, who still runs the company, is looking to add hundreds more stores. He never quits. The chain is rolling out its first-ever food truck for a summer tour of 17 cities in which Culver personally plans to “take a bit of Wisconsin to the rest of the space that we do business in,” as he recently told QSR Magazine.

More to the point for most of us, Culver’s also is releasing a new marketing campaign in which the brand is sharing its small-town Wisconsin roots with the rest of America. The debut TV ad, “From Wisconsin with Love,” showcases Dairyland staples and hospitality with scenes of farm fields, of customers enjoying made-to-order items, of employees greeting guests. Culver himself narrates the ads and is shown briefly scooping fresh-frozen custard in archival footage from 1984.

I love Culver’s story for what it says about the possibilities for companies spawned in flyover country. And it resonates personally with me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Sauk City is barely a half-hour from my Wisconsin hometown, Reedsburg; I did some freelance writing work for Culver in the 1990s; and I love going to local Culver’s today in Michigan since the chain started putting outlets in greater Detroit several years ago.

And here’s something that Culver’s gladly could have shared in their new TV ad if they’d been here to film it: My family and I visited the Culver’s in Lake Orion, Michigan, recently on an evening and unwittingly found ourselves in the midst of a weekly Bingo session of a few dozen customers. Who was pulling and announcing the numbers? The store’s owner!

Read the rest of this piece at Flyover Coalition.

Dale Buss is founder and executive director of The Flyover Coalition, a not-for-profit organization aimed at helping revitalize and promote the economy, companies and people of the region between the Appalachians and Rockies, the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes. He is a long-time author, journalist, and magazine and newspaper editor, and contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and many other publications. Buss is a Wisconsin native who lives in Michigan and has also lived in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Photo: courtesy Flyover Coalition.


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another lesson

Beyond the four cited in the author's longer article is: Don't sell out to private equity or the public markets. The overexpansions that generally follow have been the ruin of many a fast-food concept.