Culver’s, Condensed

With costs for equipment, food, labor and transportation on the rise, expanding a restaurant brand these days takes greater focus and planning. Culver’s, home of the ButterBurger and frozen custard, is meeting this challenge with a major overhaul of its building design.

The redesign has led to some significant operator-pleasing improvements, starting with a 12% reduction in building costs compared to earlier stores. But what operators appreciate the most about the proto is invisible to guests: its overall increase in energy efficiency and user friendliness. The remodeled interiors are proving a big hit with customers, too, with preliminary sales per store averaging up to 20% higher.

The 395-unit Prairie du Sac, Wis., chain opened its 11th prototype store in Chesterfield, Mo., in January. Culver’s, which turns 25 this year, plans to build as many as 28 locations by December. Of those, 18 to 20 will follow the new design and eight to 10 will be conversions of existing buildings.

"Our previous restaurant design already incorporated all the savings we could find," says architect Tom Williams, the 11-year Culver’s vet who spearheaded the prototype’s development. "That meant we had to get smaller, tighter and more efficient without making the customers feel like they were in a lesser environment."

Meet The Metro Prototype
The chain’s urban expansion strategy centers on a smaller, more efficient prototype. The proto got its start three years ago, with the opening of the first Metro model in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 2006. At 3,954 sq. ft. and 89 seats, the Metro is considerably smaller than Culver’s most popular Classic model, which covered 4,538 sq. ft. and accommodated 116 seats. The Metro store also requires about 20% less land.

The Metro’s exterior is a dramatic departure from the signature blue metal roofs found on some 250 Culver’s stores. The new exterior features a contemporary flat roof edged in blue trim. Blue-and-white striped window awnings and natural stone walls complete the look. The building design change, spurred by skyrocketing steel prices and stricter zoning codes, saved about $100,000 in construction costs per restaurant, Williams says.

The Metro plan has since morphed into three options: a 3,857-sq.-ft. model with four fryers, a 3,954-sq.-ft. plan with five fryers and a 4,207-sq.-ft. store also with five fryers. Williams and his team are now working on mirror-image versions of the three that will increase the number of possible building sites.

Energy Efficiency Shifted To Front Burner
Williams’ team next looked at upgrading systems and materials in order to boost overall energy efficiency, from ventilation and HVAC to fryers. In the kitchen, the prototype’s upgrades have chiefly focused on refining and improving existing equipment and facilities, while leaving the equipment arrangement essentially intact.

"We try to keep our kitchens as standard as possible," says Vern Young, who’s spent the past nine years serving as the Culver’s equipment specialist. "Our franchisees spend 16 weeks in training. It’s important that what they train on is what they walk into in their own restaurants."

Culver’s Kitchen Tour
The kitchen’s cooking and prep area has been arranged to help workers quickly execute the Culver’s lunch and dinner menu, which revolves around burgers, chicken and fish, plus soups and salads. If we make the pass-through window/sandwich make-station our starting point, you’ll find the griddle to its immediate left. The griddle has been customized with a chrome mirror polish that "does a better job [than conventional finishes], and doesn’t radiate the heat back to cooks as much," says Young. A custom refrigerator sits to the immediate left of the griddle, giving grill cooks quick access to needed protein items.

To the right side of the pass-through window we move into fryer territory, starting with a fried food holding area with heat lamp, a five-fryer battery (or four, for smaller units), and a dedicated customized refrigerator for fish products.

The fryers have been upgraded to a model that’s 55% efficient (up from the 35%-efficient fryers in older stores). Young chose the units not only for their faster production speeds and cooler operation (more heat goes into the oil rather than out the flue, Young says) but also for their self-filtering capabilities—a feature that’s been a must-have for the past five years. Culver’s new fryers feature individual computerized controls (one control per fryer, vs. the one control per two fryers on the previous model). The computers monitor oil temps and adjust cook times accordingly, for better product consistency.

Directly opposite is a reach-in freezer holding more product for the fryer bank. Moving back toward the pass-through window, you’ll find a microwave oven and a cooker/warmer, both sitting atop a warming drawer, and then a refrigerated work table, bun toaster and bun holding rack.

The hot-holding equipment is another item that’s been customized to Culver’s needs. The warming cabinet, which replaces a warming drawer, can now hold fried chicken—and more of it—up to three hours thanks to a humidified interior. The cabinet is a good example of the Culver’s commitment to keeping the kitchen layout as uniform as possible. The upgraded equipment not only does a better job at new stores, it can also be retrofitted into existing kitchens.

Around the corner from the cookline, situated in full, mouthwatering view of customers placing orders, is the frozen custard machine. This machine serves as the anchor of the sundae prep area and generates nearly 20% of daily sales. The 5′-tall machine features three refrigerated hoppers, each with its own compressor and motor, that churn out chocolate and vanilla custard plus any one of 100 approved Flavors of the Day. The sundae prep area is conveniently located next to the drive-through window.

What’s New In The ‘Hood
Perhaps the most significant improvement to the kitchen lies in its ventilation system. The Culver’s equipment team, led by Young, collaborated with its hood manufacturer to develop the proximity hood that the restaurant is now spec’ing.

The proximity, or flue bypass, hood works smarter: A divider panel sends clean, super-hot gasses behind the filter, while smoky effluent is sent through the filter. Thus effluent is cooler when it hits the filter so it doesn’t bake on, and a trip through the warewasher is generally enough to clean the filters. The filters and hood assembly are within close reach of workers, making maintenance all the easier.

The smaller proximity hoods have led to a 27% reduction in air volume moving through the HVAC system—a change from 4,090 cfm put out by the two canopy hoods in older kitchens to 3,000 cfm exhausted by the proto’s two new smaller hoods.

"Every cfm of air we exhaust has to be replaced. And what we replace, we have to heat or cool," Young says. "The new hoods have become a key part of our energy management program."

Proximity hoods score popularity points with Culver’s cooks for their open design and capture efficiency. They extend less than 2�’ from the back wall, compared to the cavernous 4′ overhang of canopy hoods. They’re also cooler and more comfortable to work in front of since they’re exhausting away most of the hot air rather than allowing it to escape into the surrounding kitchen.

Alas for existing franchisees hoping to upgrade, the new hood is not retrofittable. "We tried it on a couple of restaurants but it changed the whole air balance of the building," Young says. "And because of the way the fryers have to interface with their hoods, it’s critical to have the right match."

Smaller Dining Room, More Tables
Out in the front of the house, Culver’s guests appreciate the reconfigured interior for its new wow factor. High-backed booths in the center combined with half-walls, varied floor treatments and ceiling sculpting have transformed the space into multiple dining areas rather than one big open area.

Despite its smaller size, the dining packs in more tables and is more tailored to guest needs than the wide-open dining areas of older Culver’s restaurants.

"In the previous model, almost all the tables were four-tops," Williams says. "We did several studies and discovered that more than 60% of lunch guests were parties of one or two, which meant we’d run out of tables despite having empty chairs." The proto’s smaller dining room actually matches or fits more tables than its larger predecessors by increasing the number of two-tops. The new units offer 32 tables vs. 28 tables in the old Classic units.

The new dining rooms also offer more privacy, which appeals especially to women and single diners. While traditional models placed booths around the perimeter and tables in the middle, the proto switches that around.

"We tried to make the interior a more acceptable dating destination for young adults," Williams says. "And single women appreciate being able to sit in places where they can have some privacy."

The revamped dining room has proven such a hit among existing Culver’s operators that many are choosing to make the change.

Culver’s, home of the ButterBurger, is a Badger State success story. The first Culver’s opened in 1984, when Sauk City, Wis., restaurateur Craig Culver, along with his father, mother and wife, purchased an A&W unit and renovated it. In ’90, Culver opened a franchised store in Baraboo, Wis., a popular tourist destination near the Wisconsin Dells. Business took off so strongly that the family created the Culver Franchising System and began developing stores in Madison and Milwaukee.

Now in its 25th year, Culver’s is fast closing in on the 400-unit milestone. Most of its restaurants are located in the Midwest, with the heaviest concentrations in Wisconsin and Illinois, followed by Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota. Culver’s has also achieved a solid foothold in Texas, followed by (in order) Colorado, Wyoming, Ohio, Kentucky and Arizona.

The new Culver’s proto incorporates a number of upgrades to the overall facility that either save money in the building phase or save on overall operating costs by using less energy. They include:

  • More robust building materials, i.e. 2" x 6" studs rather than 2" x 4" to increase the amount of wall insulation, and higher R-values for all surfaces.
  • A higher-efficiency HVAC system that eliminates the need for a make-up air unit. The two rooftop units include fresh air tempering kits and discharge air temperature controls to monitor and control supply air temps, "so we don’t dump cold air on customers’ heads [in winter]," Williams says.
  • 1"-thick insulating windows set in thermally broken frames.
  • CFL lighting rather than incandescent. The next step, says Culver’s architect Tom Williams, will be LED lighting.

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