Culver’s Franchise Systems Inc. executives speak about their chain differently than other quick-service chains do. They call transactions “experiences” and gather their franchise partners at a “reunion,” not a convention.
Despite those differences, they still see the quick-service segment’s challenges much as their competitors do. Founder and chief executive Craig Culver said commodity inflation is the No. 1 challenge in the industry right now, necessitating menu innovation, operational excellence and differentiated marketing to protect sales and average unit volumes.
Culver, who founded the chain in 1984 with his late father, said the qualities that have helped to differentiate the brand from its competition are the same things that have helped Culver’s maintain its steady sales and growth. Those qualities, including high-quality “Butterburgers” and small-town hospitality, are captured in the brand’s current marketing campaign, “Welcome to Delicious.”
Culver, brand president Phil Keiser, chief financial officer Joe Kass, and vice president of marketing David Stidham discussed business with Nation’s Restaurant News at the 445-unit chain’s Prairie du Sac, Wis., headquarters.
Culver’s “Welcome to Delicious” campaign, starring Craig and many of the chain’s suppliers, seems to speak to a need for authenticity we’ve seen among quick-service customers.
Stidham: We’re very proud of where the campaign has gone, and the biggest driver of that is telling the story of who we’ve always been. How do we feel about other brands like McDonald’s trying to play in that space? I can’t speak for other brands, but I believe that the more [consumers hear about it], the better off we are, because we fit in that space very well.
Culver: What we’re really selling is the values of Small Town America. … There’s something about those values that everybody wants. Yes, we sell the Butterburger, but we also have great people at Culver’s, and that’s what sets us apart. We’re selling food, but it’s the experience that people [appreciate]. We’d always used the term “transactions” [for guest counts], but that word sounded so corporate, so now we use the term “experience,” which I love. It has a whole hospitality theme to it.
Keiser: That’s why it’s worked. When people go into the restaurant, [that messaging] matches up at the counter.
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You’re selling food and experiences, but you’re also selling franchises.
Culver: No, we don’t. We “award” franchises.
Fair enough. But does this campaign help you award more franchises?
Keiser: Since the launch of “Welcome to Delicious,” we’ve had an increase in inquiries, but that’s a little harder to say [if it’s] only because of the campaign. But we do agree that is a message that works with that part of our business.
Koss: And ultimately if the campaign drives sales, that is what ultimately attracts operators.
Culver: That’s the main message. How do we increase sales in each of our existing restaurants? We’re a family-owned business. I never dreamed we’d have two restaurants, much less a franchise company. Our goal is not to see how many restaurants we can add. It’s how can we increase business at each location. We don’t advertise our franchises at all; it’s all word-of-mouth. We’re not good salespeople at all, but that’s exactly the way I want it.