What It Was Like To Eat At The First Culver's - Mashed (2024)

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BySam Zwick/

Quick, name your favorite fast food burger joint. Did you blurt out a national chain like McDonald's or Burger King? How about something more regional? If a burger and fries are as American as baseball, then debating the best regional burger chains is the equivalent of the seventh inning stretch. If you hail from California, then we'll bet that In-N-Out Burger was your answer. Perhaps you reside in Texas? Then you're probably a disciple of Whataburger. But if you're lucky enough to call the Midwest home, then your mind surely went straight to Culver's.

Founded in Wisconsin, Culver's is the go-to spot for a burger and creamy scoop of frozen custard for folks who are currently as far north as Minnesota, as far west as Idaho, and as far south as Florida. But as popular as the chain is now, Culver's was hardly an instant success. Let's take a look back into the restaurant's history to give you the scoop — pun absolutely intended — on what it was like to eat at the first Culver's.

The first Culver's opened in 1984

The year is 1984. "Ghostbusters," "Pretty in Pink," and "Footloose" are in theatres, Tetris offers a new way to kill time at work, Ronald Reagan is back in the White House, and the first Culver's opens in Sauk City, Wisconsin. The little town in the south-central portion of the state boasted a population of just over3,500 people as of 2020. It was even smaller back when Craig Culver, along with his wife Lea and his parents, George and Ruth, founded the restaurant that bore their name.

For the Culver family, it wasn't a completely new business venture. Instead, it was a continuation of a long history the Culvers had in the restaurant business that included running multiple A&W Restaurant franchises, a restaurant resort, and a supper club. It was actually one of the family's A&W locations that became the first Culver's after the family bought out the space and took the restaurant out of the franchise. With the burger joint infrastructure in place, the new restaurant needed a new identity and, most importantly, a unique menu.

Some of the original menu items are still around today

We contacted Culver's to see if a copy of the original menu still exists, and while the franchise was unable to provide one, it did confirm that some of today's staples harken back to the first Sauk City location. First and foremost was the ButterBurger, the star of Culver's savory selections and part of Craig Culver's inspiration behind leaving A&W to open his own restaurant. The same could be said for the fresh frozen custard, a Culver's classic from day one.

A few other menu items are a bit more surprising, though. While they're certainly unique to a fast food burger joint, they were there close to the beginnings of the Culver's menu and remain available for purchase today. Turning to a Wisconsin supper club tradition known as a fish fry, Culver's offered a hand-battered and fried fish filet (today, that's North Atlantic cod) that could just as easily be enjoyed along with an Old Fashioned co*cktail in a club as with a fountain drink in a restaurant. Similarly inspired by more traditional sit-down restaurants, the chain's unique Pot Roast Sandwich has been around since day one and is still satisfying customers today.

The ButterBurger has always been the star of the show

The ButterBurger is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a burger with a buttered bun — but the sandwich's unique nature comes from more than a flavorful top. Craig Culver knew from the beginning that he wanted to serve burgers and borrowed the beginnings of the ButterBurger concept from his mom, Ruth, who would always butter and then lightly toast burger buns before serving. However, it took a few weeks after the first Culver's restaurant opened for Culver and associates to give the beef patties their own signature style.

As Craig tells it, he got the idea to use an ice cream scooper to portion out the beef for the patties (via Culver's). A scoop of fresh ground beef was then placed on a hot flattop grill before it was pressed down with a spatula. That's right, Culver's got to the smash burger revolutionwell before social media and other chains made the thin and crispy patties trendy.

While the burger was a key step, it was still only a single signature item, and in a town that also played host to a Hardee's and a Dairy Queen, Culver's needed to come up with something else to draw crowds. Enter the dessert menu, with one very special menu item.

Don't confuse frozen custard with ice cream

Craig Culver attended the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, where he developed a love for vanilla frozen custard that was served up from a local spot called Leon's. In need of something sweet to pair with the ButterBurger, Culver naturally turned to fresh frozen custard, served up at the first Culver's. While burgers and ice cream are hardly a novel pairing, make no mistake that frozen custard is notably different from its counterpart.

In order to be legally declared as frozen custard in the U.S., the dessert must contain at least 1.4% pasteurized egg yolk, but it's not the only thing that makes Culver's specialty sweet unique. The custard is slow-churned, which means that fewer air bubbles get trapped inside, making it denser and smoother than ice cream. Culver's also serves its custard at a somewhat warmer temperature than standard ice cream, dishing out scoops frozen to between 18 and 21 degrees. For context, traditional scooped ice cream is generally served between 6 and 10 degrees, while Diary Queen soft serve is kept at 18 degrees, making Culver's frozen custard one of the warmest frozen treats out there.

The first Culver's might have been quiet

Despite a menu headlined by multiple items that are still popular 40 years after the first Culver's opened, the restaurant was hardly an overnight success. "The first couple of days were busy like every new restaurant that opens, and then it died off," co-founded Lea Culver recalled in a Culver's YouTube video.

It didn't help that directly across the street from Culver's was the more established Hardee's. "When we first opened, we almost didn't make it," Craig Culver said in 2019 while celebrating the restaurant's 35th anniversary (via Culver's)

While business eventually picked up, there were still bumps in the road ahead. The Culver family opened two more locations within the next couple of years, but the first attempt to bring in outside owners to franchise went sideways and closed within a year. Despite a vow to never franchise again, Craig Culver gave it a second go, and the first successful Culver's franchise opened in 1990. Today, there are over 980Culver's locations open across 26 states.

Midwestern super club roots were always important

The Culver family's history of restaurant ownership was already pretty extensive before they founded Culver's. First came the A&W Restaurant drive-in franchise that George Culver owned in 1961. After selling it off the first time, George ran the Farm Kitchen Resort in nearby Baraboo, Wisconsin, for six years. The end of that run gave way to a second turn with A&W, this time a six-year stint that ended when the family purchased a supper club called the Ritz, which was later renamed the Culver's Ritz. Finally, one more run with the same A&W in Sauk City would lead to the eventual de-franchising of that restaurant and the founding of the Culver's restaurants we know today.

While that's a wild ride through a few different types of restaurants, it's easy to see how the experiences shaped the first Culver's. From menu items like the codd dinner and pot roast sandwich to a service pace that is slightly slower than most of its burger-joint counterparts, Culver's was a fast food restaurant with roots set firmly in Midwestern supper clubs.

Family-friendly service is key

From the beginning, the Culver family aimed to treat diners as real guests more than just customers. To that end,Ruth Culver became known as the "Queen of Hospitality" for moving from table to table within the restaurant to welcome guests and refill coffees, a tradition that continues to this day.

As a family-owned business in a small town, it wasn't unusual to see multiple generations of Culvers manning the counters and grills. The small-town vibes were so important that future franchise owners would point to them as an integral part of owning and operating a Culver's.

"What's our 'wow factor' that we have that other brands that have a drive-thru and they serve burgers and all this that guests don't get there, and to me, that's hospitality," explained Carissa Rose, a second-generation Culver's owner and operator. "Clearly, that started way back in the day with Ruth and Lee getting out in the dining room and getting to know the guests" (via Culver's YouTube).

DIY table tents and table service were part of the experience

Order anything at a Culver's, and the first thing you'll be handed is a small, blue plastic table tent with a white number on it. Whether you're in your car or inside, the table tent is always the precursor to a freshly made do sh like a ButterBurger or hand-scooped frozen custard. But the tents were actually the second iteration of the idea, as Lea Culver explained on the Culver's YouTube channel. "We took orders out to the tables, so we came up with this system: we took little styrofoam cups and turned them upside down, and we wrote numbers on them. Eventually, we said we have to do something else about that, and that's how the little table tents came about."

Of course, the reason that table service is a must and overall food delivery times are slower at Culver's than at many competitors comes from the cooking method. Culver's has always prided itself on its "fresh, never frozen" ground beef. With every burger made to order and every bit of custard hand-scooped by employees, Culver's is fast, but not too fast, so rather than having guests wait around at the counter for their food, the food is hand-delivered every time, a technique that was seen in the early days of Culver's.

Culver's has made its own root beer

Growing up with his family owning an A&W drive-in, Craig Culver developed a taste for root beer at an early age. So when it came time to open his own restaurant, he knew what signature beverage he needed to offer. Culver opted to brew his own root beer, sourcing ingredients locally and serving guests at the original location straight from the barrel. Eventually, the natural pairing of vanilla custard and root beer showed up on the menu as the classic Root Beer Float.

In early 2023, Culver's switched from offering Pepsi products to carrying co*ke products in its restaurants. Some fans were upset by the change, but many took to social media to confirm with the chain that the root beer recipe would remain unchanged. Thankfully, Culver's obliged, and fans can still enjoy a frosty glass of root beer at locations across the country, the same way guests did back in Sauk City in 1984.

The chili is a family recipe

Much like its root beer, Culver's started out with a family chili recipe that remains practically the same to this very day. The recipe, courtesy of George Culver, is described by the chain today as moderately spicy and is made with beef, tomatoes, kidney beans, an array of classic chili veggies, and a secret spice mix. When Culver's first opened, the chili was available only during the winter months. However, its popularity, no doubt aided by the frigid Wisconsin winters, led to it becoming a full-time menu item as the restaurant began to franchise and expand to other locations.

Today, George's Chili can be ordered as-is or in "supreme" form, which includes the addition of sour cream, cheese, and onions. For folks who are looking to enjoy the chili but want to save their spoon for custard, Culver's also offers Chili Cheddar Fries. If few things are as Wisconsin as Culver's, adding a little extra cheese to your meal and your chili just might crack the list.

What It Was Like To Eat At The First Culver's - Mashed (2024)

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