This Franchise Chatter guide on the Culver’s menu was written by Sherman Morrison.
The Culver’s story begins with George Culver, the son of a cheese-maker and grandson of a Wisconsin farmer. He spent the early part of his career inspecting dairy farms while his wife, Ruth, was at home raising their three children.
It was in 1961 when George and Ruth bought their first restaurant. Neither had any formal training, but George’s natural cooking talent and Ruth’s gracious hospitality made for a winning combination that they repeated for many years in various restaurants and supper clubs.
Growing up in this environment, the children learned the value of cooking great food to order for customers. Then in 1984, their son Craig and his wife Lea had an idea for a new restaurant that everyone in the family thought would be a hit – his mother’s knack for making great hamburgers along with his favorite childhood snack of frozen custard.
Craig and Lea, along with George and Ruth, opened the first location that year in the family’s hometown of Sauk City, Wisconsin by converting an old A&W root beer stand into Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers. The chain now has more than 500 locations in 22 states.
Craig did spend four years working for McDonald’s after graduating from college in the early 1970s, which obviously gave him a lot of insights about running a restaurant, although perhaps mostly how not to go about doing it.
So how does the basic Signature Combination of ButterBurgers and Fresh Frozen Custard stack up? Let’s find out!
Because Culver’s menu prices can vary significantly by location, this review is going to focus only on the quality of the food. Culver’s also has an extensive menu that includes all sorts of interesting dishes, from seafood to chicken to fried cheese curds, but to keep this review manageable, the focus here will be on their two main menu groups: ButterBurgers and Fresh Frozen Custard.
What makes a butter burger true to its name is that the bun is toasted and lightly buttered. Some people have the misconception that the patty is marinated in butter or fried in butter or that the whole thing is completely slathered in the stuff, which is not true. The bun, by the way, is a 4-incher, so this is not a huge burger (like at Whataburger).
You should also know that butter burgers are a Wisconsin creation (and obsession). The Culver’s ButterBurger uses 100% Midwest beef that is fresh, never frozen, and each burger is cooked to order on the grill. They admit this means it takes a little longer than the fastest of fast-food places, but they also think it’s worth the wait.
Here’s the basic ButterBurger line-up at Culvers:
- ButterBurger “The Original.” Single patty with nothing on it, though you can add onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and condiments.
- ButterBurger Cheese. This is the basic butter burger with the addition of American cheese. It’s a two-patty affair with three slices of cheese – one on top of each patty and one underneath the bottom patty.
- Cheddar ButterBurger. Another two-patty burger, this time with three slices of Cheddar cheese. There’s another version of this burger with the addition of bacon, which is always a good thing to add to a burger.
- Mushroom and Swiss. This two-patty burger comes with white button mushrooms sautéed in butter, salt, pepper, parsley, a touch of garlic and three slices of Swiss cheese. The mushrooms will be found underneath each patty.
- The Culver’s Deluxe. This one consists of two patties, three slices of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet red onions and mayo. You can also get a version of the Deluxe with bacon.
- Wisconsin Swiss Melt. This sandwich has two beef patties topped with Swiss cheese and tangy red onions under each patty, served up on lightly toasted and buttered rye bread.
- Sourdough Melt. Two beef patties topped with aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese, grilled red onions pressed into the patties, served on lightly buttered, toasted sourdough bread.
Culver’s thinks the original ButterBurger is so good you don’t even need any toppings. And they’re right, almost. I just can’t eat a burger without some cheese on it. At Culver’s you can order up American, Cheddar, or Swiss, all of which are sourced from Wisconsin dairy farms.
The patties are thinner than what you’ll get at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries, but they’re still thicker than anything you’ll get at the big fast-food chains. They’re also hand-formed, which you can tell because they come out in odd shapes as opposed to the homogenous, perfectly round patties you find in the big three (clown, king, and pigtailed girl).
In a way, a Culver’s burger is what you feel like you’re supposed to get at Wendy’s (“old-fashioned hamburgers”) but never do.
The beef patties are also nicely seasoned and well-seared, which gives them a nice crumbly texture like you’d get with burgers you make yourself from grilling at an outdoor picnic.
In the final analysis, these are great burgers, better than most fast-food joints, but not as good as the higher-end better-burger chains.
Fresh Frozen Custard
Frozen custard is an interesting dish that many people don’t quite understand. The frozen treat made its debut in Coney Island back in 1919, but it was its presence at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair that popularized it and helped it put down deep roots in the Midwest, with Wisconsin being the frozen custard capital of the world.
What makes frozen custard different from ice cream is that it has egg yolks in it, which give it a creamier, richer texture than ice cream.
Frozen custard also has much less air in it than ice cream. Many soft-serve ice creams wind up being 50% air, so frozen custard has a much denser, smoother feel to it.
Frozen custard is also traditionally made fresh wherever it’s being sold. Culvers is no exception here. The chain makes its frozen custard fresh in batches throughout each day, which is why you’re limited to just three flavors – vanilla, chocolate and the unique “flavor of the day” that varies by location.
Most people who try the Culver’s Signature Combo tend to come out more impressed with the custard than the burger.
Here’s the array of offerings in Culver’s Fresh Frozen Custard menu:
- Cones and Dishes. Your vehicle of choice when it comes to the Fresh Frozen Custard can be a cake cone, waffle cone, chocolate-dipped waffle cone or a plastic dish.
- Sundaes. The base for each sundae is the chain’s vanilla frozen custard with the following variations: Turtle Sundae (roasted Southern pecans plus hot fudge and savory caramel drizzled over vanilla frozen custard, topped with a maraschino cherry); Carmel Cashew Sundae (buttery caramel drizzled over vanilla frozen custard with whole roasted cashews and topped with a maraschino cherry); Fudge Pecan Sundae (vanilla frozen custard smothered in Culver’s own gooey hot fudge—a combination of rich dark and milk chocolate—topped with lightly salted, whole-roasted Southern pecans and a maraschino cherry); Banana Split (three scoops of vanilla frozen custard between a fresh, split banana, topped with fresh strawberry topping, hot caramel, hot fudge, whole salted pecans, three dollops of dairy fresh whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry).
- Handcrafted Beverages. These are milkshakes made with the chain’s Fresh Frozen Custard. You can get chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, strawberry (all four of which can also be malted), mint and mint chip (with chocolate flakes). You can also get a root beer float made with vanilla frozen custard and Culver’s own brand of root beer.
- Concrete Mixers. These are super-thick milkshakes (you’ll eat these with a spoon) to which you can add two different mix-ins from a wide range of choices including traditional choices (Hot Fudge, Hot Caramel, Butterscotch, Mint, Brownie, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter, Marshmallow Creme, Candy Sprinkles, Whipped Cream, Chocolate Syrup), fruit (Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, Cherries, Bananas, Peaches, Blackberries); nuts (Almonds, Peanuts, Cashews, Pecans) or various chunks of candy (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Reese’s Pieces, Nestle Crunch, Snickers, Oreo, Cookie Dough, Butterfinger, Heath, Andes, M&Ms). Sizes include mini, short, medium and tall.
It’s safe to say that once you’ve tried Culver’s Fresh Frozen Custard, in whatever form you try it, you’ll be hard-pressed to settle for soft-serve ice cream ever again. There’s simply no comparison. In fact, I think you’ll find it rivals many high-end hard ice creams as well.
With the vast array of choices in sundaes, shakes and concrete mixers, you completely forget that you still only have just three choices of flavors to begin with. When you look at what you can throw into a Concrete Mixer, the possible combinations seem virtually endless.
Culver’s makes its chocolate frozen custard with its own Dutch-blend cocoa recipe, which results in a strong chocolate flavor that surpasses a mere cocoa taste.
The vanilla custard is pretty close to perfect. You can smell the vanilla flavor, and it’s neither too strong nor too weak on the palate. Sweetness is also at just the right level, neither too much nor too little.
You do need to work your way through a serving of frozen custard fairly quickly. It’s made at a warmer temperature than ice cream, which means it will turn to soup in short order. However, eating it at reasonable pace, it retains its density from spoon to mouth, as opposed to many ice creams that completely fall flat once they’re in your mouth.
While the Concrete Mixers are similar to the concept of a Dairy Queen Blizzard, there’s really no comparison. Frozen custard is simply a better frozen treat than ice cream will ever be. Of course, it helps that Culver’s is making theirs fresh each day from milk shipped in from wholesome Wisconsin family dairy farms.
Pat of what makes Culver’s appealing, especially to the older crowd, is its small-town, nostalgic feel. The interiors are classic blue and white tiles, much like you might have found in ice cream parlors in a bygone age. There’s a sense of real hospitality here and a homey vibe that is sorely lacking in most chains.
This is also reflected in their menu offerings, which includes such “comfort food” classics as real mashed potatoes (the gravy, however, is rather bland and too salty), green beans, fresh fried chicken, crinkle-cut fries, onion rings, beef pot roast, and no fewer than 18 homemade soups and chili.
Because they cook each burger to order, it’s not going to be lightning-fast service. After ordering, you’ll get a plastic number tent to put on your table and they will bring your food out to you, delivered with a warm smile that just makes you want to say, “Aw, shucks.” You actually feel like you’re at a burger joint back in the 1950s or 1960s.
If you order via drive-through, they’ll hang a plastic number card on your door handle and send you to a parking spot to wait for your food.
The menu prices are likely to be a bit higher than the big fast-food chains, but the quality of the food and service more than make up for it.
I think the final take on Culver’s is that its ButterBurgers are both interesting and of a good enough quality to warrant occasional patronage, but it’s really the frozen custard and warm Midwestern hospitality that bring people back again and again. If you’ve never been to one, make sure you keep an eye out for them in your travels and stop in for a real treat.