When Culver’s of Forest Lake celebrated its 10th year in business with five days of free or almost-free food, a lot of people showed up.
The crowd included Craig Culver, the founder of the company.
In 1984 Craig and his wife Lea, with his parents George and Ruth, opened the first Culver’s in Sauk City, Wis.
The never-frozen U.S. beef and freshly frozen custard can now be found in 473 restaurants in 20 states, but the privately held Culver Franchising System is still based in Wisconsin.
In 2002, when Scott Willis started the Forest Lake franchise, it was Culver’s Store No. 195. The number of stores has more than doubled since then, while the nation struggled with recession.
“In 2008 we had a great year,” Culver said. “At the convention in February, I said ‘We’re not gonna participate in the recession.’”
The company’s only year of negative same-store sales came in 2009. In 2010 Culver’s opened 12 restaurants, followed by 20 in 2011 and 27 in 2012.
“We plan to reach No. 500 next year,” he said.
Scott Willis was working as a project manager in the construction department for AmericInn Hotels & Suites when he saw the opportunity for growth at Culver’s.
Now his son Cole, who was 6 at the time, works at the restaurant making malts and taking orders.
“We really appreciate our customers and are thankful for their trust in us,” Willis said. “We’re quick service, but everything is made fresh to order. It takes a little longer, because we don’t hold any food.”
The recent road construction was rough for Forest Lake businesses, but Willis is pleased with the outcome. Cars can access Culver’s, located on the north side of Broadway Avenue, from either the west or the east.
Next year the original Culver’s restaurant in Sauk City will be going through a similar project.
“Road construction is no fun,” Craig Culver said. “It can take businesses down. But everybody’s gonna go through it,” he said.
At the Forest Lake restaurant during the noon rush on Friday, Dec. 14, Culver worked the grill and ran orders to tables.
Asked by a customer if he had ever been on TV’s “Undercover Boss,” a hidden-camera show where the chief executive pretends to be a low-level employee, Culver laughed. “If your employees don’t know what their CEO looks like, you’re in trouble,” he said.
Patty Burgess, who was dining at the Forest Lake restaurant, told Culver, “I don’t eat fast food. This is real food.”
When Burgess praised the chili, Culver said it was his dad’s recipe. “I think it was my grandma’s, too,” Burgess replied.
Culver uses his airplane to attend market meetings each quarter. “I’m a big believer in face time,” he said.