Lea Culver’s Journey From Burgers to Big Dreams

By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave

When Lea Culver co-founded Culver’s in Sauk City in 1984 with Craig and his parents (and her in-laws), George and Ruth, she already had a two-year-old daughter. It was a busy time for Lea, both personally and professionally, and the fledging restaurant fought for recognition being close to a Hardee’s, Dairy Queen and a pizza place.

“[Customers] knew the Culver name because the family had grown up in the area. So when we put ‘Culver’s frozen custard and butterburgers’ on the sign, nobody really knew what it was. In the first couple of weeks we were swamped, because everybody was curious about it,” she reflects.

But after those first hectic weeks, business was spotty. Lea says especially in their first year of business, there would be days when the parking lot was empty, and it was difficult.

“Since we were small, we got to know the guests and what they liked to eat. And, word of mouth traveled, and we did the best we could and listened to our guests. We tried hard to make them feel like they were in our home. Over time, like in the second and third years, we were doing much better.”

Fast-forward 36 years, and Culver Franchising Systems operates close to 800 restaurants in 26 states. Culver’s was ranked No. 9 in Entrepreneur magazine’s 2020 Franchise 500 rankings, which evaluates franchises on growth, training opportunities, brand strength and more.

From the beginning, Lea has been involved in every facet of the business. She’s worked every role in the front and back of the house. She assisted with the company’s payroll for a while. Eventually, she taught hospitality classes to franchisees. During those early years, Lea says juggling being a mom of three girls and owning a restaurant was intense.

“I remember there were a lot of wonderful things about working as a family and the girls knowing where their mom and dad and grandma and grandpa were most of the time and living in the same community we worked in,” she says. “The hard thing was having to be [at the restaurant] a good chunk of the day. There’d be times I’d get the kids off to school, then go and work the lunch hour, pick them up after school, feed them, and get a babysitter so I could go back and work the supper hour. On weekends, sometimes I’d work 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. shifts, so I’d be gone almost the whole day.”

Looking back at that crazy-busy time Lea admits, “honestly, I don’t know how I did it. I see other young women with young families working in our restaurants today, and they’re managing it.”

In 1993, Lea became the executive director of Culver’s Foundation, the company’s charitable arm. In 2020, the company awarded just over $500,000 of scholarships to Culver’s employees. Lea has steered the foundation to give to programs that take care of children and families, and educational needs.

Lea’s passion for philanthropy led her to co-found her own nonprofit, Big Dreamers United, with friend John Urban in 2018. Big Dreamers assists nonprofits typically with one-off projects, like shooting a video, designing promotional materials and social media needs — all for free.

“…Philanthropy and giving is not always about writing a check. I used to think when people talked about philanthropy it was someone who gave a big amount of money to make a big difference. But it’s really about helping anyone out of a tough situation. I call it ‘living philanthropy.’ There are a lot of ways to be a philanthropist.”

Big Dreamers’ goal is to help two nonprofits every month. In their first year and each year since, they’ve worked with roughly 30 nonprofits per year, such as Porchlight, DAIS and Hope House, exceeding that benchmark. In its first year, Lea self- funded the entirety of Big Dreamers’ $120,000 budget. Starting in 2021 she hopes to work with companies to bring in donations to help fund Big Dreamers’ creative services.

“Our goal is to eventually not just have the two of us — it’s to contract out more projects [to freelancers]. If we can raise more money every year, we can take on more opportunities and projects and get them done quicker,” she explains. Their services would remain free for the nonprofits.

“We call ourselves Big Dreamers, because we’re unstoppable. We’re going to keep doing our thing and making the world a better place. I like to think everyone does really great things. The more you work with nonprofits, the more you realize the little things that make a difference, and it makes a difference in your own life.” bigdreamersunited.org

QUICK QS

HER MUST-ORDER FROM CULVER’S: A Wisconsin Swiss Melt with fried onions and ketchup. And, vanilla custard is my favorite.

WHY CULVER’S LOGO IS OVAL: “When we owned an A&W, the sign was oval. We couldn’t afford to do a whole new sign, so we took the glass out and redesigned the Culver’s logo based on that. It has worked out quite well.”

IT’S HOT IN HERE: “[Big Dreamers] worked on the 2021 Madison Firefighters Charity Calendar — John shot the images. The goal is to raise $30,000, and they’ll split it between Gio’s Garden and the Dane County Humane Society.” Find it at madisonfirecalendar.com.

WHAT SHE’S DOING WHEN SHE’S NOT WORKING: “I like to paint — art is in me. I took some art classes in college, and it’s become a passion of mine.”

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