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30 Years of Culver's, the Frozen Custard and ButterBurger Chain

Mint Chip. [<a href="">Photo</a>]
Mint Chip. [Photo]

Culver's, a chain known for its ButterBurgers and frozen custard, turns 30 years old today. While currently they have over five hundred locations in 22 (mostly Midwestern) states, Culver's is primarily associated with the state of Wisconsin. The first location opened in Sauk City in 1984 when Craig and Lea Culver renovated an old A&W restaurant; although the restaurant grew rapidly after that, the first location outside of Wisconsin didn't open until 1995.

The combination of frozen custard and butter burgers — what Culver's refers to as their "Signature Combination" — was not a new one for Wisconsin, even in 1984. In a 2013 speech to the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce, Craig Culver told the audience he got the idea from Culver's after going to college at UW Oshkosh. Drive-through frozen custard and butter burger shops are common in the eastern part of the state, where Oshkosh and, more prominently, Milwaukee are located. Custard stands including Gilles (opened in 1938) and Kopp's (opened in 1950) had been serving these two dairy-laden treats side by side for decades when the first Culver's opened.

[Photo: Culver's / Facebook]


For the unfamiliar, a ButterBurger, or butter burger if it's not from a Culver's, is exactly what it sounds like: a burger served on a bun toasted in butter (like you might toast the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich). How much butter is up to the restaurant. Writes burgerman George Motz in Hamburger America about classic Milwaukee butter burger shop Solly's:

Solly's serves one of the last real butter burgers in the nation. When I say "real" I'm referring to the copious amounts of creamy Wisconsin butter that is used on their burgers, as opposed to what their surrounding competition calls a butter burger. To everyone else who peddles this great Wisconsin treat, the burger bun is coated with a thin swipe of butter, much in the way you might butter your toast if you were on a diet.And while it's doubtful that anyone would confuse Culver's ButterBurgers with something one might eat on a diet, they do go out of their way to profess that their burgers are not "fried, slathered, steeped, basted, drenched, or marinated and topped with butter," but rather "served on a lightly buttered, toasted bun." In the video below, Culver's explains:

Culver's ButterBurger 101

Frozen Custard

sundae.jpgFrozen custard is basically ice cream that is made with egg yolks. It was invented on Coney Island in 1919, but quickly gained popularity in the dairy-wealthy Midwest. Traditionally, frozen custard is served fresh — straight from the machine — and isn't hard frozen in tubs like most ice cream. This creates a real estate issue, though: you can only serve as many flavors as you have machines to make them in. At many frozen custard shops, including Culver's, this results in a rotating roster of flavors.

Culver's serves three flavors each day: vanilla, chocolate, and a flavor of the day. Flavors of the day range from caramel pecan (their first ever flavor) to raspberry cordial to eight variants on cheesecake flavors (blueberry, cherry, chocolate, chocolate chip, Oreo, raspberry, strawberry, and turtle) to branded flavors like Andes Mint Avalanche and Nestle Crunch Swirl. In all, Culver's makes 82 flavors in addition to vanilla and chocolate, and adds to the list all the time. Vanilla and chocolate are primarily used in sundaes, shakes, malts, and concretes.

Incidentally, Culver's claims to have launched the "new seasonal pumpkin-loving craze" in 1986 when they began making a custard that used real pumpkin as a flavoring. More commonly the fad is credited to coffee chain Starbucks, although as the Wall Street Journal points out, there's no actual pumpkin in their Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

In any case, daily flavors are advertised on roadside signs:

The Signature Combination

Culver's is arguably the first restaurant to introduce the combo of ButterBurgers and frozen custard outside of the state of Wisconsin. There is a frozen custard tradition in places like St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas, Indiana, Iowa, and parts of Ohio. The Kansas-based chain Freddy's opened in 2002 and currently has over 100 locations in 17 states. But then, they serve steak burgers, not butter burgers.

Butter burgers are solely a Wisconsin tradition. Culver's also serves other dishes associated with Wisconsin, including fried fish (both sandwiches and plates), fried cheese curds, and a brandy-flavored riff on butter pecan ice cream. They also serve their own root beer, a nod to the Culver family's history owning franchises of the A&W restaurant chain.

Below, a couple of vintage Culver's ads, and a dance party just for fun. Happy 30th, Culver's.

Video: Culver's Sundae Commercial

Video: Culver's Walleye Commercial

Video: Culver's Harlem Shake

· Craig Culver Recalls Culver's Origins [Sun Prairie Star]
· Culver's ButterBurger 101 [YouTube]
Coney Island's former specialty in the Midwest [VV]
· Culver's Sundae Commercial [YouTube]
· Culver's Walleye Commercial [YouTube]
· Culver's Harlem Shake [YouTube]
Sundae. [Photo: Culver's / Facebook]