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Founders Cite Highs, Lows of 3 Restaurant Brands


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From left, Craig Culver of Culver’s, Scott Gittrich of Toppers and Brandon Landry of Walk-Ons.

Joe Veen

Brandon Landry and his former partner were walk-ons on the LSU basketball team in the late 1990s, which means they weren’t recruited to play or offered scholarships but worked hard every day anyway, and hence they called their Louisiana-style bar and grill Walk-On’s.

Craig Culver, chairman and co-founder of Culver’s, which just signed store No. 643, quipped that he should have called his chain Cut, because he was cut from his high school basketball team.

But Scott Gittrich, founder of Toppers Pizza, had the best retort of all: Based on his lifestyle in college, “I should have called my company Potheads,” he said to roars of laughter, at a panel of restaurant founders today at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in Las Vegas.

Landry said he has the heart of a walk-on, even today. “Everybody knows that the walk-on is the underdog and the person who doesn’t get fame and fortune. As a walk-on you got up and ran just like everybody else at 5 o’clock in the morning, and you knew pretty much that you weren’t going to get any playing time. But, I knew every day, busting my tail, I was making the team better,” he said about the mentality he tries to instill at Walk-On’s.

He’ll tell the teams in his restaurants: “If it’s a Friday night, and we’re doing a $25,000 night, and the GM walks out, how bad would it be?” Everyone agrees, not all that bad. “But how bad will the shift be if the dishwasher walks out?” Pretty horrible. “Here’s the lowest guy, the guy who’s overlooked until you need that person,” he said. “You need every person on the team.”

Asked to tell about the worst day ever at their companies, and how they recovered, Craig Culver shared an emotional story recalling the day last October when Culver’s CEO, Phil Keiser, died unexpectedly at age 60, devastating the entire Culver’s community, he said. Culver showed with his voice and demeanor how tough that was, and in doing so put into perspective the regular ups and downs in the restaurant business.

As for Gittrich, no matter what counts as “dark days” at Toppers, including a handful of occasions when he felt fear because the financials looked bad, he always remains optimistic, and always stays passionate about the business he loves. “I mean, we’re in the pizza business,” he said, and no matter what, in his mind that is still the best place to be.

Presented by FT’s sister publication, The Restaurant Finance Monitor, the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference continues until noon tomorrow at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

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