Jim Dickrell
March 18, 2016

Dairy Talk: ButterBurgers, Frozen Custard and Nine Million Pounds of Cheese Curds

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

If you want to make any farmer’s blood boil, mention Chipotle and its anti-farmer message that big farms are bad, food not grown locally will destroy the planet and anything not grown organically will kill you.

It’s refreshing, then, to have a fast food restaurant chain such as Culver’s, which champions burgers, frozen custard, and cheese curds and has a marketing campaign that actually thanks farmers for their efforts. 

Culver’s is famous in the Midwest for its ButterBurgers, made with fresh beef and well-buttered buns, its frozen custard and now its deep-fried cheese curds on demand. The chain’s white- and blue-tiled restaurants are kept immaculately clean, and sullen, bored workers so common at other burger joints don’t seem to exist at Culver’s. At least, I’ve never met one.

Craig Culver, who with his dad co-founded Culver’s and just recently stepped down as its CEO, spoke at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Business Conference in Madison last week. The company, which started with a single store in Sauk City, Wis. in 1984, has grown to 566 restaurants in 23 states. Restaurants in Georgia and North Carolina, marking the 24th and 25th states, will open this year, and the total number of Culver’s stores will reach 600 by year end.

Culver was well received by the 1,5000 in attendance at the meeting last week. Many already knew Culver’s restaurants only use Wisconsin milk and cheese, selling tons of milk shakes, 6 million gallons of frozen custard and 9 million lb. cheese curds annually. Milk is also now the default beverage in Culver’s kids meals. But Culver’s message was also sobering.

His restaurants, like all other restaurants that want to remain profitable in the hyper-competitive quick serve business, pay attention to customer wants. Case in point: Gluten free buns.

“We serve just 10 to 15 gluten free buns a day per store,” says Culver. “But we don’t want to do anything that prevents someone from coming in to one of our restaurants.”

Ditto for antibiotic- and hormone-free.  “The movement toward both is marketing; it truly is,” says Culver. “Mom is making the decisions of where the family eats, and she believes it’s better for her kids.”

If a restaurant doesn’t provide antibiotic or hormone-free, mom will simply choose to take her family to places that are. Culver’s is already antibiotic-free when it comes to chicken. While not imminent, the antibiotic-free movement is expanding to beef and pork. “You have to be prepared for it,” he says.

The marketing even goes to the image of the farms Culver’s features in its advertising. One PDPW audience member urged Culver to film some of those ads in a modern, freestall facility. Culver firmly but politely declined. “I have nothing against large farms. But I like the picture of the little red barn; it’s more romantic,” he says.

Again, it’s marketing. Little red barns resonate better with consumers than drive-through freestall barns. The problem, of course, is that it no longer reflects reality when 80% of U.S. milk production comes from herds with 200 or more cows.

So what’s the one thing that keeps Mr. Culver up at night? Food safety. He points to Chipotle, which lost 30% of its sales after being unable to rectify the issue as more outbreaks occur, or even identify the source of  the food borne illnesses. “Food safety is something you may not even have control over because the problem can come in your back door without you knowing it. But nobody blames the source; everybody blames the restaurant,” he says.

It’s quite a dilemma: Restaurants must cater to the whims of consumers, but will be held liable if meeting those needs leads to disaster. Think Chipotle. One would hope a better-educated consumer would make better-educated choices. But in 2016, some of the most highly-educated consumers are making some of the least-educated decisions. Where will it end?