Culver’s co-founder Craig Culver is sitting in his Prairie du Sac office overlooking the Wisconsin river and bluffs that surround it. He stops to acknowledge a bald eagle flying by. A postcard portrait? It’s just another Friday in May, which is kind of the point, Culver says.

For some time, Culver has wanted to roll out a food truck for his 850-unit brand. While the chain, founded in 1984 by Craig and Lea Culver, along with Craig’s parents George and Ruth, as a single family-owned spot in Sauk City, Wisconsin, doesn’t lack for history, it does have an opportunity to meet new audiences. Especially, Culver says, at this juncture of the pandemic bounce back, when fast food has become, in many places, a sterile transaction.

Culver’s “small-town Wisconsin heritage,” however, could hardly be described that way, and it’s why the legacy concept is putting those roots on display in a new integrated marketing campaign dubbed, “Welcome to Delicious.” It will be headlined by a 17-city tour featuring the first Culver’s food truck (as Culver hoped), along with fresh TV spots. The messaging arrives more than 11 years after Culver’s launched its original “Welcome to Delicious” positioning.

The debut ad, “From Wisconsin With Love” showcases Dairyland staples and hospitality with scenes of farm fields, guests coming together over made-to-order items, and employees greeting customers. Culver narrates the commercial and briefly scoops fresh frozen custard in archival footage from 1984.

Culver’s food truck itself is a 22-foot-vehicle wrapped in an illustrated scene of farm fields and dairy cows. It will give away cheese curds and custard and “export Wisconsin” to audiences through on-site experiences.

Culver says he’ll attend “nine or 10” of the events. “It’s going to be a very busy summer for all of us,” he says. “A very busy summer for me, but I’m looking forward to it. … The first one I’m going to is going to be in Phoenix on May 20. It will probably be 110 degrees, but that’s OK.”

The broad vision isn’t anything complex. Culver’s wants “to take a bit of Wisconsin to the rest of the space that we do business in,” Culver says. The idea of exporting Culver’s out of Wisconsin, which Culver has been touting for years, is aided by the fact many of the chain’s franchisees trace their roots to The Badger State. From Arizona to Florida to any of the 25 states Culver’s currently operates in, people with Wisconsin pedigrees just seem to find the brand, he says. Managers, front-line workers, and owners alike.

Yet also, like any marketing push, Culver says he hopes the tour, and subsequent materials, will invigorate the brand, products, and people. “That’s what it’s about—it’s about energizing your brand,” he says, “letting those who don’t know much about you, teaching them who the heck we are, and having them get excited about us as well. I’ve always said, we serve butter burgers, frozen custard, cheese curds, and on and on, but the real business we’re in is the people business. And those who are best in the people business, no matter what business you might be in, are going to be the best amongst their competitors.”

Culver adds his brand is “very much alive.” This is a chance to amplify that point rather than re-ignite it.

In 2020, Culver’s same-store sales climbed about 6 percent over 2019, as drive-thrus helped the chain weather COVID drops. The following year, comps rose roughly 19 percent.

And in each of those years, Culver’s opened 50 locations. “In a pandemic, I found that to be quite remarkable,” Culver says.

The chain’s systemwide U.S. sales were $1.73 billion at the end of 2019. That number lifted to $1.986 billion in 2020 and $2.489 billion this past year.

So the campaign is hardly Firestarter after a flameout; it’s the opposite. But the people part of the campaign can’t be understated.

Culver says there are “probably well over 100” employees in the company who started as teenagers and climbed the ladder. “That is very exciting for me,” he says. “And to know that as a leader, to know that you may have had a little bit to do with that development along the way, and see these people become not only good at the business, but wonderful people as well. You can’t separate one from the other. They are the same individual. Who you are in the business is who you are outside the business as well.”

“That’s something that I preach a great deal,” Culver adds. “But people are who we are and what we are.”

Recently, Culver’s held a management class where 50 store-level leaders went through training at three different tiers. They talked about compensation and respect and what they need to grow.

In those talks, Culver says he mentioned, in addition to labor challenges and how to navigate them (namely around staffing), he sees an opportunity, too. And that dovetails into the campaign as well. Can Culver’s turn around one customer’s day during a period when so many stressors are pressing daily life, from inflation to broader issues? “Yeah, it’s going to be fun and stuff,” Culver says, “but still, we have an opportunity to put some smiles on faces.”

It’s always been core to Culver’s “heart,” he says, and partly why the brand has been “a little slow” advancing technology over the years. Culver takes the blame on that front. “I am a face-to-face kind of person, and that’s who I want Culver’s to continue to be as well,” he says. “I want our people to look somebody in the eye and they know there’s a person there who wants to take care of them.”

Coming into COVID, Culver’s didn’t offer online ordering. But again, it had drive-thrus. Those often morphed into double-lanes as the brand’s off-premises growth surged ahead of in-store gains. As it’s continued scaling, the need to widen capacity remained.

“It’s interesting how some tough times can make you better than what you were,” Culver says. “And I think we certainly are better than what we were.”

In 2019, drive-thru mixed about 55 percent of sales for Culver’s. It rocketed to 90 percent during the depths of 2020. Culver says it’s now settling “around 60 percent.” And online ordering became “very, very important” and has stuck around as a growing channel.

Yet Culver’s hasn’t suffered anything resembling brand drift. In the early days of COVID, when there was no real sense or timeline in front of operators, Culver says he was asked whether or not the brand should lay off a bunch of employees. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “I said, ‘wait a second.’ We keep all of our people and we serve our guests through the drive-thru lane like any other place; just like our dining rooms. Treat them with great hospitality.”

And as noted, Culver’s posted record sales in 2020 and 2021.

The double drive-thrus, land permitting, have been part of all new restaurant builds. Culver’s continues to retrofit them into existing units as well.

A store in Niles, Michigan, for instance, built an island to separate two lanes, widened the entrance to allow access, and then installed a second drive-thru order station on-site.

“It’s interesting how some tough times can make you better than what you were,” Culver says. “And I think we certainly are better than what we were.”

This includes speed of service and learning how to adjust kitchen and ops flow around the extra drive-thru business. Also, technology, which Culver says “keeps increasing,” although he didn’t dive into details. As important as it’s going to be, though, “so is the human side of the business,” he says. “That’s going to be even more important to us.”

Culver’s isn’t going to come off other principles, either. Each meal will always be cooked to order, no matter what the restaurant climate throws at us next. “We’re never going to be as fast as many of our competitors [because of that],” Culver says. “But that is not going to change at Culver’s. We’re going to serve a fresh sandwich, whatever it may be. All of our products are going to be fresh. … I want quality coming into the restaurant. I want quality going out and freshness, as well.”

Likewise, Culver’s has zero plans to cede differentiators in the dining rooms regardless of how much off-premises grows. “We want both,” Culver says of in-store and drive-thru. “We want everything. We want it all.”

Customer Experience, Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Web Exclusives, Culver's