Nestled in the rolling glacially tilled hills of south central Wisconsin is the small town of Baraboo. Long before Disney made Orlando the happiest place on Earth, Baraboo was such a place. For more than a century the small Wisconsin town served as the traditional summer home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (now the home of the Circus World Museum and Clown College). Even today, towns across Wisconsin anxiously await the annual trek of the circus train marking the beginning of the circus year with clowns, acrobats, animals and more. It is a sight not to be missed and no one walks away from the experience without a smile.
After spending some time talking with Culver's Carlton Larson, director of IT, Chris Contino, director of marketing and Joe Koss, chief financial officer, the company's Baraboo roots shine through. Most restaurants focus on providing a high-quality meal at a reasonable price, and want their guests to be happy. At Culver's, that is not nearly enough. "What we provide is an experience; not only a quality food experience, but an overall experience," explains Contino. "We don't want satisfied guests. A satisfied guest means that we didn't do our job. We want every guest to be happy when they leave." Ensuring that guests leave happy is hardly an easy matter, especially for a company that has grown as rapidly as Culver's has. Since 1984, the company has grown from a single location to nearly 300Ã.‚¬"all but five franchised. Given that rapid growth, it would be easy for Culver's to put the emphasis on continued growth and not guests, but that is certainly not the case. While Culver's has garnered interest to grow rapidly, explains Koss, "we feel we can support the 40 to 50 each year, along with making every guest happy and every franchisee happy, as well."
One of the keys to that growth has been a slow, but steady growth out from its south central Wisconsin home. From its beginning in the upper Midwest, Culver's now stretches all the way down to Texas, but remains concentrated closest to its Wisconsin home.
Another key has been the development of close relationships with its franchise partners. "We have a unique relationship with our franchisees," adds Koss. "We know them and interact with them. We meet with them at least quarterly and talk to them almost daily. Before we do anything, getting their feedback and involvement in the process and getting their buy in has really made our initiatives much better."
Whereas many restaurant companies spend a great deal of time dictating how franchisees should act and what technologies they should implement, Culver's spends that time working closely with its franchise partners on finding technology solutions together.
One of the most important ways Culver's does that is through a technology committee. While having a technology committee involving franchisees is hardly unique to Culver's, but what is unusual is the influence of franchisees on the company's technology decisions and strategies. Franchisee buy-in is not just desired, but essential to any technology strategy, whether it is the point of sale, company-wide extranet or the loyalty program.
"We don't do anything without getting their stamp of approval from the technology committee," insists director of information technology, Larson. "We don't necessarily have just the technical guys on the committee. We feel it is also important to get the viewpoint of the non-technical people on technology decisions." As Larson insists, Culver's recognizes the importance of getting franchise buy-in for technologies not only for good relations, but also for the smoother roll outs that will result.
Not surprisingly, that relationship goes well beyond the initial selection of technologies and includes broad-based support from the corporate headquarters. With only five company-owned locations to help, supporting franchisees becomes the central role for the people at Culver's. After all, "Franchising" is their middle name.
That strong relationship stems from the company's founding approach to having happy guests (and happy partners). "We give our franchisee partners a lot of help and have a very good relationship with them," explains Larson.
In practice, working closely with franchisees on technology means including them from the outset and trying to sell the technologies to all owners, and not just to the members of the technology committee. "When we first looked at point of sale, Joe and I went out and looked at every point of sale on the market and selected the best two or three," explains Larson. "We brought the franchisees in and gave them demonstrations. We let them make the choice. We had already made our choice and fortunately, it happened to be the same system."
In fact as Larson notes, Culver's open door policy has led to a number of ideas for technology improvements from the franchise community. Whether it is the corporate intranet portal, POS routing or the company website, franchisees are taking an active role in developing Culver's technology strategy. "The big part of our success is our franchise community," agrees Koss. "We have some great people out there and great team members. They are the reason behind our success."
Of course, developing good relationships with franchisees is only one piece of the puzzle for Culver's. To truly make guests happy requires a great deal of attention to what they want, and developing systems for meeting guest expectations.
As a quick-service restaurant, speed naturally is an important consideration. Whether it is a butter burger, salad or a frozen custard sundae, everything at Culver's is made to order. Offering fresh and custom-made food, in a QSR setting, however, requires finely tuned systems and processes.
"The one thing that makes us different is the way we use technology in the kitchen," explains Larson. "We have two different set ups and they are using either eight or nine kitchen production screens. With that many screens, our kitchen workers can get a jump on part of an order. With the Radiant Systems POS and kitchen-display system we can age the orders by color so we know exactly how old an order is so we can expedite."
That customized approach is also evident at the Culver's website. In addition to the usual functionality found on many restaurant websites, Culver's has added additional functions that speak to its guests. For example, each Culver's restaurant has a featured frozen custard "flavor of the day." For guests looking for their favorite flavor or their closest location, the website has become an essential tool. And if you need that flavor today (for me it is chocolate peanut butter) the website will also show you which area locations will have your flavor and when.
Rather than simply giving guests minimal nutritional information, Culver's instead developed a highly customizable nutritional calculator function on its website, allowing guests to see the exact nutritional calculation of their meals. Rather than lagging behind, Culver's wanted to take a proactive stance in the movement towards a healthier lifestyle. "We want people to know what they are eating. People are especially concerned about allergens," argues Contino.
On the horizon Culver's is also keeping its eye on a number of new technologies. "We are going to test in our family restaurants a self-service kiosk," adds Larson. "We think it will be fun for guests plus convenient."
Larson also notes that Culver's is in the process of developing a wireless table number system. Since each meal is custom-made, Culver's often employs runners to bring the items to guests at their tables, or in the case of the drive-thru, to specially designated parking spaces.
According to Larson, the wireless system would use a wireless transmitter at each table. "Guests would have a card that they slide into a transmitter that would let us know where to deliver the items. It will help speed food to the table and ensure it goes to the right place."
These steps, note Larson, Koss and Contino will continue to resonate with Culver's guests and continue to improve the experience. "We have a fast casual mentality and a fast food reality," insists Contino. Perhaps that's why Culver's guests tend to leave so happy.