Culver's is one of the fastest-growing burger chains in the country, with more than 500 restaurants in 22 states. A slice of that growth has come on the Gulf Coast in the last two years, with at least 15 new franchised locations from Sarasota to Naples.
Co-founder and CEO Craig Culver, who opened the first Culver's in 1984 in Sauk City, Wis., along with some family members, helped celebrate a new store opening in east Manatee County in June. He spoke with the Business Observer about leadership and the company, known for its ButterBurgers and frozen custard. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What were the early years like in trying to build the business?
Honestly I had no idea we would ever have even two restaurants. The first year was very difficult, we lost a lot of money. Second year was when we started to grow the business, and the third year was when we actually made a buck at it. It took us two full years before we ever made our first dollar. It's a lesson and a story that is to be leaned from. It's one I tell every manager and every franchisee: Just because you open a store doesn't mean that there's going to be enough money coming in to pay the bills.
What mistakes have you made along the way that you learned the most from?
Early on I may have not valued our team members as I should have. I thought the most important person was our customer, our guest. I learned after some hardships along the way that the most important people in our business are our team members.
What are the characteristics of a great leader?
There is a difference between managing and leading. Not that mangers don't become leaders, I would hope they do. Leading takes maturity. I think it takes some history behind you. It takes someone with vision, a dreamer. And it takes someone with a great deal of heart, a compassionate person. It also takes enthusiasm and energy.
What's the best decision you made at Culver's?
In the beginning, we weren't very busy, but we were busy enough to not know what we were doing. We didn't have any systems. We were restaurant people, but we weren't good at systems. When people ordered, they would gather in lobby and watch and wait. We were going to go table service, go to wait staff. But before that we decided to go to a numbers system. So we took our Styrofoam coleslaw cups, turned them over and wrote a number on them with a magic marker. Then when the order was ready we knew where to take it in the dining room. I'm so glad we didn't go to a wait staff. I don't think we would be the concept we are today if we did that.