Caramel cashew frozen custard at Culvers
Caramel cashew frozen custard at Culvers
We’d just crossed the state line into Wisconsin when I saw the logo on the Interstate sign for the first exit.

“It’s Culver’s!” I told John. “We need to stop there for lunch! I love their burgers!”

After the stress of getting out of the Chicago metro, it was just the balm I needed.

On my first visit to Wisconsin in 2003, picking up an award for “Along the Florida Trail” at the Outdoor Writers of America conference in Madison, I came across Culver’s for the first time. I’d rented a car to explore the area and discovered the restaurant not far from the Dane County Airport. What caught my eye was the “Flavor of the Day” sign for their frozen custard. Having never had frozen custard, they reeled me in … and hooked me with the Butterburger.

Return to 2012. Beloit, Wisconsin, is just over the border from Illinois, and at lunch, the parking lot at Culver’s was a zoo. We parked next door and walked over. Just as I remembered it, the Butterburger had a toasted bun with butter, fresh Wisconsin cheddar, and a slab of excellent beef. John was impressed. We topped it off by sharing a caramel cashew frozen custard, which was even better than I remembered it.

Over the next several weeks of travel, we made a point of tracking down Culver’s for lunch, if they were handy. We only spent three days in Wisconsin, however. And there’s the rub. Culver’s is a regional chain, based in Sauk City. Every store is neat and clean, the employees friendly and nicely dressed. In Wisconsin. Once we left Wisconsin, trying Culver’s in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, we discovered that beingĀ  a chain meant the restaurants could stray too far from their roots.

And they did. Employees weren’t as neatly dressed. Not as warm and friendly. But our disappointment was mainly with the Butterburgers. Not a single Butterburger outside Wisconsin came on a toasted bun with butter. I began thinking perhaps I’d dreamed they were that much better in Wisconsin, or that we’d ordered the wrong thing, but no. The buns were just limp. The beef was still excellent, but the burgers just weren’t the same. Fortunately, the frozen custard stayed consistently top-notch.

Lesson learned: when you’ve got a good thing, keep it simple, and keep it close to home. We’ll still visit Culver’s in other states, but Wisconsin, their home, is where they shine.