Craig Culver (yes, this Craig Culver) remembers his parents taking him and his siblings out to dinner frequently, and not just to places that served kid-friendly burgers and fries. The Wisconsin-native remembers traveling all over the state — to Madison, Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin Dells — to dine at homey restaurants that served (his parents) brandy old fashioneds and the kids onion rings. They were casual but classy, relaxed but lively, with simple, strong names like Fisher’s, or Firehouse Restaurant or, one of his favorites — The Pines.
“It was the place to be,” he remembers. “It was a gathering place on Friday nights especially; [it] was the fresh fish fry night and Saturday was lobster and prime rib. And both nights, or every night, was a brandy old fashioned sweet.”
New York has its dive bars. Paris, its bistros. Wisconsin has supper clubs. They’re all the sort of establishment that help define a place — and supper clubs, with their friendly hospitality and relish trays, are uniquely Midwestern.
Almost always family-owned and operated, Wisconsin supper clubs are long-established restaurants, typically in rural or remote areas, with straightforward but respectable menu items and good hospitality. While their hey-day was post World War II, you’ll still find more than 260 across the state. Most likely, they are housed in a building that goes back decades, and sometimes the supper club has been operating just as long. Despite having “club” in the name, you don’t actually need to be a member to dine at one — but the hospitality will surely make you feel like you’re getting something special.
In his book Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience, Ron Faiola, who has dedicated his career to researching and documenting Wisconsin supper clubs, includes a guide to “What Defines A Wisconsin-Style Supper Club.” It includes things like surf and turf specials, twinkling holiday lights as year-round decor, and brandy old fashioneds — but, if you ask him, that’s by no means prescriptive.
“I’m constantly trying to come up with a definition,” Faiola says. “But it’s difficult because supper clubs are really a ‘you know it when you see it kind of thing,” he says. Most importantly, they feel almost like a local secret, where the staff know the regulars well and a waitress is likely to call you “hon” if she doesn’t know your name.
So, what does any of that have to do with a burger joint that has 878 locations? Craig Culver owes his early inspiration for Culver’s, and success, to those dinners spent at the supper clubs of his childhood. His parents, George and Ruth Culver, owned supper clubs and eateries throughout Sauk County, including The Farm Kitchen, a supper club and resort on Devil’s Lake. There, his mother became unofficially known as “The Queen of Hospitality,” personally greeting every guest as they walked into the restaurant and helping the staff bus tables. His father was the general manager, and a stickler for serving only high quality items, even if it meant pricing entrees higher than competitors. (At The Farm Kitchen, a prime rib dinner was $10, while their competitors were serving theirs for $5.)
By 1974, George Culver started losing his eyesight, and the family sold The Farm Kitchen. “I had just graduated and came home, not quite sure knowing what I was going to do,” Craig remembers. “Dad sat me down, and he said, ‘Son, would you take over and be the general manager of The Farm Kitchen Resort and Supper Club?’ I told my dad no. I didn’t want to be him and Mom. I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business because you’ve got to work too damn hard.”
Even more important to Craig, though, was setting his own course.
Despite not taking his father up on the offer, Craig Culver and his wife, Lea, did bring some of those same supper club traditions to the very first Culver’s, which opened in Sauk City in 1984. Alongside the now-famous ButterBurger, they served chicken, pot roast, homemade soup, mashed potatoes, and yes, fried fish. Inspired by fish fry Fridays, Culver’s now offers their North Atlantic Cod Dinner and Filet Sandwich daily, served with the Culver’s family recipe for tartar sauce and coleslaw, made the same way George Culver did at the Farm Kitchen.
A key priority, though, was making sure everything was cooked to order — and that customers felt welcomed at every location. “As I started to grow my career in the food service industry, I looked back at my parents and realized how smart they were, how good they were. Neither one had college degrees,” Culver says. “One of the things they were so good at was surrounding themselves with people, team members that knew how to say please and thank you and my pleasure, and mean it.”
“History is part of who we are, and our past history led us where we are today at Culver’s,” he says. “That’s very, very important — that’s part of our culture and we’ve got to continue to not only hold onto it, but grow that.”