Culver’s New CEO Pulls His Punches
Two years after Culver’s CEO and President Phil Keiser died, the brand’s new leader, Joe Koss, has struck a balance between comforting his team and franchise community, while also continuing the burger chain’s slow and steady growth that has taken the system from 40 restaurants in the mid-1990s to more than 660 locations today.
“Phil Keiser was not only my boss but my mentor, my friend and someone I worked closely with for 19 years,” Koss said of his passing. “There’s no instruction manual for something like that, but we have a strong team here and a strong franchise community that helped us get through that time.”
Compared with some of the other better-burger players that are debuting attention-getting mega burgers, bringing in more exotic toppings or opening flashy flagship locations, Wisconsin-based Culver’s has taken a measured approach, requiring that new franchisees prove they can operate a single unit successfully before moving on to open additional locations.
“Our model is unique,” Koss said. “We are a franchise brand, so our rate of growth depends on interest from new franchisees and existing franchisees—and the good news is there’s interest from both groups.”
While he admitted some of the brand’s franchisees are eager to sign multi-unit deals and build several new locations at once, he emphasized the brand isn’t changing a playbook that has served it well for decades.
Last year was a notable year for the company, not just because of Keiser’s passing, but also because Atlanta-based Roark Capital bought a minority stake in the brand, which has added another layer of insight and experience as the brand continues adding locations outside of its Upper Midwest home turf.
Asked about his top priorities, Koss said continuing to focus on the brand’s culture, while continuing to innovate its broad menu are top of mind, while also continuing to experiment with mobile ordering, curbside pickup and third-party delivery.
Cooking every Butter Burger to order, however, brings additional challenges to off-premise dining that some of Culver’s QSR competitors don’t have—but Koss said bringing the brand’s food outside of the traditional four walls is new normal rather than some passing craze.
As the first Culver’s opened in 1984—making it a millennial brand by age, not a boomer—it’s still a relatively new system, which has lessened the impact of an ongoing reimaging program to upgrade the look and feel of its individual locations.
Its current focal areas for building new restaurants are all within the United States, with a heavy focus on the south and southeastern regions, especially Florida, Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas.
I pressed Koss on what burger competitors he envies or wants to crush during our interview, but his Midwestern politeness held strong and he refused to single anyone out. Instead of picking on any of his cohorts, he said Culver’s is one of the original better-burger players and implied that a rising tide lifts all boats.
I may have hoped for some bolder quotes in sizing up the competition, but this raised-in-Wisconsin reporter can’t argue with a brand that’s bringing cheese curds, pot roast sandwiches and fried fish to all corners of the country. It’s always fun trying to get CEOs to throw a few punches, but in this era of snarky restaurant Twitter spats, Culver’s quietly diplomatic ways are as refreshing as a dish of custard on a hot summer day.