Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | October 2016 | By Robert Thomas

What Inspired Culver's CEO

After 35 years in quick service, Phil Keiser's passion for the industry didn't slow down a bit.
Phil Keiser, CEO, Culver’s, was with the brand since 1996. Culver’s

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In one form or another—behind a grill or behind a desk—I’ve been selling burgers since I graduated college. I never thought that would be the course after growing up as a “country kid” and having farmers as grandparents. I graduated from Manchester College and was quickly recruited by a regional quick-serve chain out of Indianapolis called Burger Chef. After it sold to Hardee’s, I went on to work for a franchisee with more than 80 Hardee’s locations. Now with Culver’s since 1996 and a total of 35 years in quick service, I haven’t looked back on that initial decision to be part of this industry.

This industry brings so much variance on a day-to-day basis, and I love every second of it. The ability to serve a guest or be of service to others you’re working with is something I really enjoy and can’t imagine doing anything else. As a brand, we’re primarily a franchisor and responsible for managing and strategically building our brand. We’re a collection of mom-and-pop businesses, and the family nature of our franchisees puts a lot of responsibility on us to do what we can to ensure their success. When you see that happen and see the franchisees develop others in their restaurants, it’s a great feeling.

For me, delivering a quality product in a friendly, fast, convenient way never goes out of style. We’re looking to continue our quality standards as the years continue. As a brand, we need to figure out how to be more efficient in that effort with a push on speed and convenience in recent years. It’s a challenge to stay relevant, and we need to make sure we stay committed to our guests.

We’ve never tried to tie ourselves down by measuring improvement by number of units. What we do want to forecast is opening successful restaurants. We have 570 units, and our pipeline is more robust than ever, with 70 more stores that could be running in the next 12 months. What’s important to me is we’re attracting new and young franchisees, and they’re really the backbone of what we do. I’m so proud of every single one of them.

What was your first job?

I was a janitor at a church.

What’s your favorite menu item at Culver’s?

A double cheeseburger with the works.

What is your favorite restaurant or type of food, excluding Culver’s?

I really like a great thin-crust pizza.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I live on a big, rural piece of property, so I do a lot of landscaping and outside projects.

What menu item or operational strategy are you most proud of?

I hang my hat on consistent execution across the brand.

What is the best piece of advice you think quick-serve executives should hear?

Make sure you understand the life of the assistant manager.

Editor's Note: Phil Keiser passed away on October 15, shortly after this story published.


I grew up in Prairie du Sac, WI, which is the home of Culvers. As Director of National Development for Papa Murphy's, I travel a lot, and when I spot a Culvers, I automatically pull in because I know I will always get a great double cheeseburger along with great service. I now live in Oklahoma City and unfortunately, we don't have a Culvers here, so hopefully we will see one very soon!

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