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Culver's Thrived In 2020 By Doubling Down On Comfort Food The #5 company on our Franchise 500 list is now expanding into the Southeast.

By Kate Rockwood

This story appears in the January 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Culver's

More than 50 years ago, George and Ruth Culver sold their A&W root beer stand to focus on supper clubs around Sauk County, Wisc. But two decades later, when their son, Craig, joined the family business, they bought the stand back, gave it the family name, and set out to put the quality in quick service.

Related: 6 Ways Being in a Franchise System Helped Me Survive Covid-19

The Culvers paired local favorites like fried fish and cheese curds with frozen custard and Ruth's signature Butter­Burger, and in time, the chain grew to 775 locations across 25 states. Sales were strong in 2019 — they jumped 13.9 percent, according to the research firm Technomic — and stable throughout the pandemic. After Culver's shut down in-store dining in March, drive-through business began picking up the slack. "Our guests have a great deal of trust in us and knew we could serve a great meal safely," says CEO Joe Koss. "By summer, business came back stronger than ever, and it grew into the fall."

Image Credit: Courtesy of Culver's

By cooking food for its customers' kitchen tables, Culver's managed to open roughly 50 new restaurants last year, earning the franchise its third consecutive spot on the Franchise 500 top 10 list — and its highest rank to date. The restaurant also introduced a new Harvest Veggie Burger, built around a chickpea-mushroom-cheese patty that was four years in development. It's a homespun response to the Impossible and Beyond Burgers, neither of which felt right on Culver's menu. "We wanted something unique," Koss says. "And being from Wisconsin, we had to include cheese."

Related: 5 Restaurant Franchises That Will Cost You at Least $1 Million

After 23 years with Culver's, Koss retired at the end of 2020. But he has already charted a future for the company: Culver's will continue expansion in the Southeast, reach further into urban areas, and bank on the fact that quality never loses.

"We're hopeful we'll see some return to normalcy in 2021," Koss says. "But regardless of what happens, we're confident in our ability to serve guests the freshest meal around."

To see our complete Franchise 500 rankings, please click here, or view more stories here.

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