Eric Wolfe was driving over to Green Bay, Wisconsin, when the phone rang. At this point in time, as CEO and president of the regionally revered Erbert & Gerbert’s sandwich chain, Wolfe directed 30 units—seven more than when he bought the brand in 2004.
When Wolfe picked up, he was briefly stunned. “To be quite honest with you, I was surprised he called me back,” Wolfe says.
On the other end of the line was Craig Culver, one of the co-founders of Culver’s, a chain that was founded in The Badger State in 1984 but has since erupted into more than 600 locations across 24 states, everywhere from Florida to Arizona.
Culver shared some advice with Wolfe, a fellow Midwest native.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry so much about the growth, worry about the operators you’re bringing into the brand and making sure they’re the right fit,’” Wolfe says. “And he was absolutely correct when he was sharing those wise words to me as a young CEO.”
On January 7, franchisee Manuel Pizaño-Carlo opened the 100th Erbert & Gerbert’s. Fittingly, it was in Wolfe’s home state of Minnesota, where he attended St. Cloud State and met his wife, Diane, 26 years earlier.
The milestone wasn’t exactly a shocker. Wolfe says Erbert & Gerbert’s is currently growing 25 to 30 percent a year, and it’s doing so with “the right momentum. It’s not just a bunch of fluff.”
Much of that traces back to Wolfe’s conversation with Culver. He purchased the brand from Kevin Schippers, who named the restaurant after his father and the stories he used to tell his 10 children.
At the time, Wolfe could best be described as a businessman with keen entrepreneurial skills. Along with three partners, he developed a medical device company in Dallas-Forth Worth whose first sale was $168. It grew to around $55 million before Wolfe decided to move back to the Midwest and lighten his travel schedule. He looked at injection molding and real estate. “And I was just like, that’s not sexy and I don’t know a lot about machines,” he says.
Schippers’ brother, who knew Wolfe from St. Cloud, told him about Erbert & Gerbert’s and suggested he check it out. Wolfe did, struck a deal for purchase, and started his next endeavor.
As for foodservice, Wolfe had worked as a dishwasher and run the counter at Godfather’s. He delivered pizzas for Little Caesars and spent time with the Aramark Corporation in college to earn weekend money.
“It was kind of interesting. I’ve always been somewhat involved in the food business. I never thought I would end up owning a brand but I’ve always liked it,” he says. “And I think this always happens in business. I like being around people. I’m not a desk kind of guy or someone who sits in a cubicle all the time. I want to be out in the field. I want to be talking to people.”
Wolfe adds that he’s not the type of CEO who sits “in the ivory tower.” He is constantly on the move, interacting with franchisees and making sure his units are upholding the brand’s culture. For example, they have a President’s Club where 15 managers take a trip and hang with Wolfe and his wife. They also pick up some hardware for their yearly accomplishments.
Past excursions have taken them to Mexico, on cruises, and, this year, to Las Vegas.
Along the way, Wolfe has continued to reflect on his conversation with Culver as he’s watched the advice resonate in real time. One thing he’s learned: finding the right franchisee isn’t always about finding the right resume.
“[Culver] gave me some great advice. He said, ‘It’s not so much the background. It’s their values. It’s whom you’re bringing on to your team. I remember that because he said, ‘When they come onboard we want them to bleed blue. That’s the Culver’s way.’ I was like wow, that’s kind of interesting because I had always thought that you want food-related experience and those are the only people who can do that. But some of our best franchisees have no food background. You train them really well and they’re excited about the brand and we can mold them on the Erbert & Gerbert’s side.”
“Kind of looking back on that, boy he was absolutely right,” Wolfe adds.
Forging ahead, Wolfe sees Erbert & Gerbert’s expanding its presence in current nerve centers, such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis, where they even have a location at the Minnesota Zoo. Then it’s on to new markets, but always building out from the center.
Getting there will look pretty similar to the path so far. Although, Wolfe says he expects technology, from mobile apps to kiosks, to take on a much larger role. Not just in their system, but in quick-service arenas everywhere.
Erbert & Gerbert’s has a scalable model, Wolfe says, because it keeps its offerings simple and bold. He scaled down some of the menu items early on, which made the concept a lot more repeatable. Yet, at the same time, the food focuses on flavor, like the Quatro—Cranberry Wasabi and Chicken, and the Spartan—Peppadew Mustard and Chicken. They’re also well known for soups, which are made with company recipes. All meats and cheeses are sliced in-house daily as well.
“I think that is the balancing act that you really have to keep asking yourself. Don’t screw up what got you to the table,” he says. “You hear that all the time but so many times people don’t listen.”
And Wolfe can’t wait for the future. The 100-unit milestone, he says, is just a sign of things to come.
“We’re excited. It’s 100 units and we’re looking for the next 100 units. We just want to do it right, and we know we will,” Wolfe says.
By Danny Klein