Phillip Keiser is a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to dessert. If, after his double cheeseburger with the works, he’s still inclined for custard, he goes for a plain vanilla cone. And it should taste the same whether he’s at the Culver’s restaurant near his office in Prairie du Sac, Wis., or the one in Elkhart, Ind., closer to his hometown. As president and COO of Culver Franchising System Inc., a chain known for its ButterBurgers and frozen custard, Keiser’s job is making sure everything, down to dessert, is consistent everywhere.
But he can’t be in all 435 locations at once.
“How do we keep brand standards going?” Keiser says. “One of our critical success factors is our franchise operators and their commitment to the brand.”
Because he takes extra care to bring in committed franchisees, Keiser doesn’t have to manage details too closely.
“The only way the brand grows is if we’re all in this together,” he says. “So our training program is more extensive than most. Our interview and selection process is more extensive than most. Our core values surrounding what type of franchisee we look for are more extensive than most.”
These days, those core values are stronger and clearer than before, thanks to Culver’s new “Welcome to Delicious” campaign that reinforces the chain’s reputation for good food, family values and great service. Founder Craig Culver is very involved in the campaign, telling stories about Culver’s ingredients and relationships.
So Keiser has to make sure those stories and values radiate throughout the Culver’s system. That starts with attracting and developing franchise partners who are committed to them.
1. Identify committed franchisees
When Keiser joined the company in 1996, Culver’s operated 44 locations. Now, nearly 400 restaurants later, he still hasn’t advertised a single franchise.
“They’re all sold by word-of-mouth,” he says. “Most of the folks have discovered us through a friend or relative or as a guest in our restaurant.”
Attracting interest, then, isn’t the challenge — it’s identifying the right candidates. The first filter is financial. Even though the restaurant business can be expensive, Keiser’s not interested in investors because investors don’t operate restaurants.
“The first thing is: They’ve got to be somebody that wants to run a restaurant day-to-day,” he says. “We require that in each one of our restaurants, we have an operating partner who needs to own either 25 percent of the operating entity and (25 percent of) the real estate or 50 percent of the operating entity. They’ve got to (be financially qualified) if they want to own the real estate.”
He runs background checks to verify financial standing, but validating the ability to run a restaurant takes more than paperwork.
“Many franchise organizations would do a Discovery Day, where they would come in and interview the franchisor,” Keiser says. “We have what we call Discovery Week, where they come on their own nickel. They need to buy uniforms and work six 10-hour days in our restaurant.
“Basically, during the week they’ll work every station in the restaurant. Can they figure out how to work the grill, how to make the custard? They get there early in the morning and work with our porters mopping the floors, scrubbing the fryers. They basically experience a little flavor of the day-to-day life of a team member working in our restaurant.”
Why subject potential franchise owners to entry-level work? Believe it or not, Keiser’s not testing prior restaurant experience.
“We really want them to do a gut check on themselves, is this right for them,” he says. “If you work in a kitchen, you get hot and you get some of the kitchen odors in your clothing. Are they OK with that, or do they think it’s gross? Are they OK wearing the uniform and seeing their friends? They’ve got to be comfortable with the environment.”
Not only the work but also the hours can weed out candidates.
“If they come from a traditional 8-to-5 type of Monday-through-Friday work environment, do they understand we do as much business after 4 o’clock as we do before 4 o’clock, and the weekends are big days for us?” Keiser says. “You won’t be successful with a Monday-through-Friday mindset.”
While Keiser is looking for applicants to be comfortable with the environment, he’s not hung up on kitchen skills just yet.
“We’re really looking for people that have leadership skills, communication skills, critical thinking skills, team-building skills,” he says.
In the mornings during Discovery Week, applicants further reveal those skill sets through the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, personality tests and a GED equivalency test measuring math and verbal skills. While Keiser considers these results, he doesn’t put too much weight on them.
“We’ve had people that have scored off the charts that haven’t done real well working in the restaurants,” he says. “But it does give us an insight in terms of how that person is wired.”
To really understand what makes applicants tick, Keiser and other executives — including Craig Culver — interview them at the end of Discovery Week.
“Try to understand: What are their goals or objectives?” he says. “Most of them have some motivation to get into this. And if their motivations aren’t aligned with what we know it takes to be successful in this business, that’s probably a deal-breaker.”
Because the right motivation requires a lot of commitment, Keiser wants to make sure candidates are sincerely willing and able to make necessary sacrifices. Would their family support relocation? What if their July Fourth tradition at the lake couldn’t happen on July Fourth?
He also tries to read current employees’ interactions with applicants. Now that they’ve worked together a week, Keiser observes how well they mesh.
“You can tell sometimes by the body language of our team members, and you can see by the interaction of people, what they talk about,” he says. “The team member, if they’re leaving the shift, do they come over and say goodbye (to the applicant), or do they just leave because maybe they won’t see this person ever again? Are there hugs, or is it just pleasantries? There’s a lot of collective input from people that goes into this.”
To gather all that input, Keiser brings together everyone who interacted with the applicant on the following Monday. It’s crucial that opinions are kept quiet — especially from the top — until decision time.
“We don’t talk about the candidates during the week when they’re here,” Keiser says. “Myself or for Craig — if we met with somebody and said, ‘We really think they’re great,’ or, ‘Boy, I don’t think they’re very good,’ — because of our positions, we would taint somebody else’s insight.”
But come Monday, there’s no holding back. By engaging several team members around the decision, he gets a better-rounded view of applicants. Plus, by this point, he’s given applicants plenty opportunities to self-select themselves.
2. Train and develop your team
Discovery Week is just the appetizer for new franchisees. Once they’re on board, they dive into an intensive 16-week training course. The first 12 weeks are spent at the restaurants around Culver’s headquarters in Prairie du Sac — about two and a half of those in a classroom.
“Some of that would be dedicated to food safety, then everything from how to conduct training, how to use the training tools, how to conduct local marketing, to accounting practices, payroll, labor laws and presentation skills,” he says.
Franchisees spend the rest of the time mastering each workstation in the restaurant, not just learning what happens but also why.
“The product and techniques have to be followed,” Keiser says. “But part of the burden for us is to ensure that we have a policy or a procedure or a product or an ingredient that makes sense, that we can actually back it up and make a business case for it. When we do a good job with those decisions, we make it easier for the franchisee, that they aren’t thinking of doing it a different way.”
Throughout the program, trainers test franchisees and even reward the highest scores. Like school, they have to maintain passing grades to advance.
“If they aren’t cutting it in one area or another, then they have to go back and revisit it,” Keiser says. “A few times, we’ve actually had to extend the training a few days because they weren’t getting their arms around some aspect of the business. There’s a lot of testing, measuring and follow-up that goes into it.”
The ultimate test comes in the last four weeks, when new franchisees open two restaurants, facilitating a week of training and a week of opening for each.
“That’s where the dynamics really change, because when they’re working in our restaurants, the team members basically know their jobs,” Keiser says. “But now, they have to become the expert. Now, the people ask them questions. Now, they’ve got to help inexperienced team members overcome challenges of getting the job done.
“If they’ve never been through an opening before, they’re kind of standing there wide-eyed like, ‘What the heck’s going on here?’ The second time they do it, they really start to understand the challenges they’re going to face when they do the same process in their very own Culver’s restaurant.”
But it can’t be all work all the time. Most training programs at Culver’s include a cookout at Craig and Lea Culver’s home, or there’s a patio at the office that makes a perfect casual spot for serving beer and appetizers.
“You’ve got to look for some of these social times to get to know people on an individual basis and not make it all just about the business,” Keiser says.
3. Stay present and engaged
When you take time during training to get to know franchisees individually, you start the relationship with a good sense of alignment. But it takes constant effort to stay aligned.
One of the ways Culver’s does it is through a network of franchise business partners (FBPs) that acts as a field team to support the franchise community. Each FBP has about 20 restaurants to visit and measure against standards. They’re also on-call to help franchisees solve any business issues, from profitability to developing their teams.
But Keiser doesn’t use that network as an excuse not to get out in the field himself. Both he and Craig Culver visit restaurants throughout the system.
“I once had a guy tell me that as you advance, it becomes more and more difficult to get out of the office and into the restaurants,” Keiser says. “I always thought that was a little bit of bull, but I’ll tell you what — I can’t get out as often as I’d like to.”
At a minimum, he grabs lunch at a nearby Culver’s almost daily and tries to get out of Prairie du Sac for a couple of days each month to visit other restaurants.
The main goal of visits is shaking hands and saying hello. But he was a restaurant manager, too, once, and he still observes through those eyes.
“When I walk in the restaurants, I’m not the president of the company anymore,” he says. “I’m basically the restaurant manager, looking at the things I looked at when I last ran a restaurant in 1981: What’s the sense, what’s the feel? Do they have their act together? Do they have the right amount of products? Are the team members smiling at each other? Do they say please and thank you? They can’t fake that stuff.”
Even if they behave while you’re there, how do you know they don’t play while you’re away? The key is not drawing all your conclusions from one visit.
“You don’t just use one snapshot to tell the story,” Keiser says. “You use the collection of all the things you see happening at a restaurant: What are their patterns for growing sales, what are their patterns for growing people, what is their community involvement, how does that match up with the reports and what the other folks are doing?”
That big-picture mindset is important because you’re not just visiting a restaurant, you’re assessing how the local leadership is managing that operation.
“I not only have to see how the restaurants are doing, I have to evaluate how the rest of our leadership team is evaluating standards,” Keiser says. “You may go from one FBP’s region to another FBP’s region and you start to understand, OK, this guy or gal has a blind spot or that’s their hot button and they’re really pushing that aspect of the business. When I go out, I really try to look at it and say, ‘What are my directors of operations and my VPs talking about when they’re out there?’”
While tucking observations into his broader evaluation of the network, Keiser takes note of details, too.
“Ours is a very detailed business,” he says. “We measure our success in terms of penny profit on our menu items. We measure our success in terms of seconds in speed of service. There are a lot of details that go into it — not that I can get into all the details in my job — but [it’s important] to have enough of an awareness that when you do dig into a certain topic, you can get down to brass tacks and understand it.”
But tread carefully when dealing with details in the field.
“If you see a critical detail that’s being missed, you’ve got to be conscious (of the situation),” he says. “I have to remember that, for me, I’m just walking into another restaurant. For them, they’re getting visited by the president today, and that makes some people uptight.
“But when you see stuff that is on standard, you try to reinforce it. And if there’s a coachable moment, well, you do a little coaching, too.”
The main objective is just letting employees know you’re there and you care about what they’re doing. The more you do that, the better equipped you’ll be when issues need attention.
“If you have some things that aren’t quite to standard, it’s much easier to have some of those difficult conversations if there’s a relationship based on trust and mutual respect,” he says. “If they only hear from you when they did something wrong and they’re in trouble, so to speak, then that doesn’t work very good. … You’ve got to get together with people and get face-to-face as much as you can.”
How to reach Culver Franchising System Inc.:
Phone: (608) 643-7980
The Keiser File
Name: Phillip Keiser
Title: President and COO
Company: Culver Franchising System Inc.
Headquarters: Prairie du Sac, Wis.
Locations: 435 in 19 states (from 44 when Keiser came on board)
Hometown: Nappanee, Ind.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business from Manchester College
Previous jobs: various management positions with Burger Chef and Hardee’s
What was the last book you read? The owner’s manual for my car. Have you seen those new manuals? I mean, come on, they’re like books! And I still don’t know how to work all the stuff on the radio. But seriously, the last book I did read was ‘Decision Points’ by George (W.) Bush.
If you could have dinner with any three people, living or not, who would you choose and why? I’d like to have a conversation with Vince Lombardi because he was a Packer but also because I think he also had a lot of insight on how to motivate people and get things done and be disciplined.
In our industry, the person that I think would be a real hoot to talk to would be Col. Sanders. He basically started selling chicken out of his car and using a recipe as a business plan to become, now, one of largest restaurant companies in the world. From some of the folks I’ve met through our industry that actually have worked with the Colonel, I get the impression he was a pretty colorful character.
And then I think any former United States president. I’ve had a few opportunities over the years to hear a couple of them speak, and when they go off script and they start telling stories, OK, at that point, if walls could speak, there would just be a whole bunch of interesting things to get from any of them, regardless of how you view them from a political standpoint.
If your company had a theme song, what would it be? There could be a couple of them: I think the theme song from ‘Rocky.’ We’re not the big guy, but we’re always trying to grow. We’re always a little bit of the underdog and trying to make things happen, but we always believe in ourselves and we aren’t afraid to take on the challenge of the fight to get out there.
One of the other ones would be ‘We Are Family.’ We talk a lot about a spirit of family; we actually call our annual convention The Reunion. It’s the spirit we like to have at our gatherings with our franchise community and our team members.
What’s your favorite stress relief? I’m a landscape gardener. I live out in the country, and I have a woods and a perennial garden. So after all we do all week, then I just go out there with the plants and the trees and the grass, always cutting something, pruning something. I wouldn’t call it mindless work, but I can get out there and have some me-time and work up a sweat and get some sore muscles, too.