The Crusader Newspaper Group

The first, and a big hit in Bronzeville

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

The cash registers have been ringing around the clock. A long line of cars kept the drive-thru humming with orders. The juicy ButterBurgers and smooth frozen custards were a big hit and so was the hospitality.

Chicago’s first Culver’s in Bronzeville is open for business. The doors flew open for the first time on Jan. 22 before scores of hungry customers packed the new 4,300-square-foot-restaurant at 35th and King Drive in the Lake Meadows Shopping Plaza.

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A CULVER’S EMPLOYEE serves ButterBurgers to guests at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Bronzeville. (Photo by Erick Johnson)

What seemed like an ordinary restaurant turned out to be something truly special for owner Baron Waller, Bronzeville residents and the Lake Meadows Shopping Plaza.

After years of planning and working, the Black-owned franchise became Waller’s fourth Culver’s restaurant.

Located in a high-profile location, Waller and Lake Meadows’ officials are excited about the restaurant’s potential to boost the shopping center’s profile while reaping big returns for Waller’s growing empire of Culver’s franchise restaurants.

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the possibilities helped cook up a spirit-filled ribbon-cutting ceremony. A live jazz band played as Culver’s employees served the restaurant’s signature food—the ButterBurger—and froz- en custards to a packed crowd who congratulated Waller on his latest achievement.

While Culver’s prides itself on its food, Waller and Culver’s top brass stress hospitality as a key ingredient to the company’s success.  Days before it opened, employees learned the art of customer service by engaging in role-playing exercises.

“We’re in the people business,” Waller said. “We’re thrilled to bring custom, made-to-order, high-quality meals and desserts to Chicago, all served with a friendly smile.”

Founded in 1984 in Sauk City, WI, Culver’s today has 645 restaurants across the country, according to co-founder Craig Culver, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The restaurant serves a variety of dishes, from the hand-battered North Atlantic cod to a crispy chicken sandwich to butterfly jumbo shrimp. There’s also the chicken cashew salad and the beef pot roast. The Culver’s foods that helped put the restaurant on the map are the ButterBurgers and frozen custard.

Made to order, Culver’s prepares the burger using 100 percent beef, before placing it on a lightly toasted bun. It’s the same way Craig’s mother made it during his childhood years.

The fresh frozen custard was Craig’s favorite during the summer when he was a child. Both foods gave Craig the idea of opening the first Culver’s in 1984 in Sauk City, WI, his hometown. He built the restaurant on hospitality skills he learned from his mother, Ruth, who he says was warm, gracious and had a special way of making people feel welcomed.

Despite its popularity, Chicago never had a Culver’s in the chain’s 34-year-history. Forrest Bailey, president and CEO of Draper and Kramer the developer of Lake Meadow Market, said the firm persuaded Culver’s top brass to give Waller the opportunity to open a franchise in the shopping center.  The franchise was part of the second phase of Lake Meadows’ development plans, which was financed by Urban Partnership Bank.

To build the restaurant, Waller said he used the minority construction firm, Powers & Sons, for the project.

As Waller was building his Culver’s franchise in Bronzeville, another businessman was building one in Portage Park on Chicago’s northwest side. It was a race that generated interest as to which owner would open his business first and become the city’s first Culver’s. In the end, Bronzeville won, but Waller said winning the race wasn’t his focus.

“I didn’t focus on the competition,” Waller told the Crusader. “I just wanted to get it (his Culver’s) done.”

Waller said it took three years to build the Bronzeville restaurant after he conceived the plan in 2014. He said obtaining the permit was the most challenging part of the project. Waller said he built a Joliet Culver’s location as the Bronzeville Culver’s project dragged on. Now, in Illinois, Waller has Culver’s franchises in New Lenox, New Lockport, Joliet, and Bronzeville.

The Bronzeville location may prove to be Waller’s most lucrative franchise. The restaurant’s prime location sits off South King Drive near a bevy of public and charter schools, apartment high rises and homes. The restaurant can also draw customers from the shopping center itself, a bustling complex that includes a Walgreens and LA Fitness.

“We have seen growth in this community, and it’s vital that we see residents who have been in this community for generations benefit from this success,” said Ald. Sophia King (4th).

Culver’s president and CEO Joe Koss said, “This is no small undertaking. What a fantastic day for Culver’s. It’s people like Baron that make Culver’s what it is today.”

Waller’s Culver’s has 86 employees and half of them live in the surrounding community Waller said.

Waller once lived in the massive Lake Meadows high rises near the shopping center. A former IBM manager, Waller has an MBA from the University of Michigan. His twin brother, Byron, is a doctor. Baron’s nephew, whose name is also Byron Waller, is the director of operations for Baron’s four franchises.

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