Before their guests bite into a ButterBurger or enjoy a spoonful of frozen custard, Culver’s franchisees want them to know about the most important stakeholder in the Culver’s system, the people who help make the burgers and custard possible: the farmers.

Since its rollout two years ago, the chain’s “Thank You Farmers” initiative has raised nearly half a million dollars in support of the National FFA Foundation, local FFA chapters, and a variety of local agriculture organizations. FFA, which stands for Future Farmers of America, is a youth organization with a mission to develop students’ potential for leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education. There are more than 610,000 student members in 7,665 local FFA chapters across the U.S.

Jessie DeMars is marketing manager of Culver Franchising System Inc. and has been the point person for the “Thank You Farmers” program, which rolled out in April 2013. She says the initiative is a great fit for the Wisconsin-based chain, as a majority of its stores are located in the Midwest and other parts of the country where agriculture plays an important role in the local economy.

“Culver’s was looking for a way to give back to our communities,” DeMars says. “It’s important for our guests to know where their food comes from, and education has always been a priority for us.”

As many as 380 of the more than 525 Culver’s restaurants have participated in the program by hosting share nights, displaying canisters for customer donations, or donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of designated menu items. The brand sponsored a national coloring contest where the winning farm-themed pictures were collected in a calendar that FFA groups could sell as a fundraiser.

DeMars says the impact has been felt in local communities; she cites examples like Onalaska, Wisconsin, where Culver’s donated $800 to a local FFA chapter and the franchisee received a thank-you note from the group’s adviser, who said the money kept the chapter from going under. In Minnesota, DeMars says, money raised by Culver’s is buying the iconic blue corduroy FFA jackets for students who can’t afford them.

The Culver’s in Cross Plains, Wisconsin, was the top fundraising restaurant in the “Thank You Farmers” program in 2014, raising $5,610. The money went to the FFA chapter at Wisconsin Heights High School and made it possible for student members to attend the National FFA convention and take other educational trips.

“When we came to them with this program, they were so happy because they were going through budget cuts and this made it possible for them to keep going,” says Jim Nonn, the Cross Plains franchisee.

To draw more attention to the program, a local farm dealership displayed a tractor outside the Cross Plains restaurant last summer. “This tie-in between Culver’s and the farmers is a really good thing,” Nonn says. “This is a very agricultural area, and a lot of our guests are really interested. The community really pulled together.”

Carissa Rose, a Culver’s franchisee in Mesa, Arizona, says she lived on a Wisconsin dairy farm until she was 12 years old. Her parents stopped farming to become Culver’s franchisees in Nebraska. Rose says that through customer donations and share nights, her two Mesa Culver’s restaurants have raised $5,000 since the “Thank You Farmers” program launched. The money has been donated to the Campo Verde High School FFA in Gilbert, Arizona, where one of her restaurant crew leaders is the chapter president.

“They made me an honorary member,” Rose says. “I was not in FFA in high school, but now I am a member.”

In Marshalltown, Iowa, competition between two area high school FFA chapters has made franchisee Jason Schomer’s store one the top three fundraising restaurants over the past two years of the “Thank You Farmers” program. Marshall High School and West Marshall High School each have an equal number of share nights where 10 percent of Culver’s sales go directly to their individual FFA chapters. The school that racks up the most sales on their share nights gets bragging rights and an extra $250. The losing team gets an extra $150.

“When Culver’s first said they were doing this with the FFA, we jumped at it,” Schomer says. “We’re in a farming community, and we have a lot of people come in and thank us for doing what we’re doing. Our state is predominantly a farming state. If farming is not in your family, you know a farmer.”

Over the first two years of the program, Schomer says, his restaurant raised about $10,000, which has been split between the two schools.

“We’ve talked extensively to our staff about what we’re doing,” he says. “Once they got their hearts into it, it was amazing how far they’d go and the return we’ve seen. They’ve learned about the FFA and understand the need to give back and why we do what we do. My biggest pleasure was seeing my staff learning the need to give.”

While individual restaurants’ “Thank You Farmers” fundraisers are mainly local grassroots efforts, the program does have a national component.

In the “Signs of Gratitude” social promotion held in June, guests were invited to share a photo of themselves posing with a thank-you note to farmers on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram using the hashtag #ThankYouFarmers. For every thank you shared, Culver’s donated $1 to the National FFA Foundation.

Back of House, Burgers, Charitable Giving, Story, Culver's