How Culver's Turned a Joke Into a Bestselling Menu Item and Became a Top-5 Franchise The Midwestern comfort-food staple struck gold in 2021 by taking creative changes and empowering franchisees, landing the company at #5 on the Franchise 500 ranking.

By Margot Boyer-Dry

This story appears in the January 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Culver’s

Started franchising: 1988 Total units: 808 Cost to open: $2.4M-$5.4M

Culver's newest menu item, called the CurderBurger, debuted twice this last year: once as a social media prank on April Fool's Day and then six months later as an actual burger topped with a giant cheese curd.

"The response by our fans inspired us to make it a reality," says Craig Culver, the company's cofounder. It was a feat they executed in six short months against an industry standard of 12-18 months for new product rollouts. The response was overwhelmingly positive, fueling single-day sales records at an astounding 20% of restaurants. In Wisconsin locations, CurderBurgers sold over three times more than burgers on an average day.

Related: Culver's Thrived In 2020 By Doubling Down On Comfort Food

Born in Wisconsin, Culver's may have risen to prominence with Midwestern comfort food, but flexibility like this is what earned the ­franchise its fourth consecutive spot on the Franchise 500 Top 10 list — and holding steady at No. 5, its same ranking as last year.

Culver's agility was put to the test in 2020. Before the pandemic, close to 60% of Culver's business was "on-the-go" — and of course, that figure shifted to nearly 100% when lockdowns began. Franchise owners adopted a variety of solutions to fulfill their orders: Some implemented online ordering with "Curdside" pickup; others shifted to double drive-thrus or staffed team members outside to take orders on tablets with a contactless credit card payment device. "Our operators know their local communities' needs, so we encouraged them to embrace whatever worked best for each particular restaurant instead of forcing a singular solution," says Culver.

Related: The 5 Best Burger Franchises You Can Buy (and How Much They Cost)

As a result, the brand grew at a record pace. It opened 50 restaurants during 2020, its fastest annual growth to date. As of the fall, it was on track to exceed that in 2021.

As the company grows, it is also upgrading its franchisee services. Across locations, Culver's is currently replacing its POS system and the back-of-house technology that manages food cost, waste tracking, scheduling, and more. But above all else, Culver credits its food for the franchise's staying power last year. "With a single stop, guests could find something that genuinely pleased everyone in their party, and that foundation served us incredibly well."

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