If you do not venture up near the Deer Valley Airport on a regular basis, then you may not have heard of Culver's by now. It's the newest contestant in the battle for fast food supremacy along Deer Valley Road, and it's going to be a tough one to beat.
The Wisconsin-based franchise has selected Arizona for its newest test market. Culver's Deer Valley opened up earlier this year, in March of 2008. Besides the Phoenix location, there is another one in Mesa and a third one under construction in Surprise. That's a very small number of restaurants and if you do not live nearby, you may be wondering if it's worth the drive. Maybe I should start by explaining what makes Culver's different from the other fast food franchises.
A trip to Culver's will do more than suppress your appetite; it will change the way you think about fast food. It's hard to ignore how different this place is from other fast food chains. The building features a shaded patio for outside dining and a fancy stone facade around the main entrance. The dining room features a carpeted floor and neatly framed pictures hanging on the cream-colored walls. There are high-backed booths and the chairs are real wood, not plastic. They even have flat screen TVs hanging on the walls, which (thankfully) were kept at a low volume.
Apparently, the folks at Culver's don't want you to feel that fast food dining has to be a cheap and unpleasant experience. Just take a look at their menu and you'll see what I am talking about. Unlike their competition, the menu has over 45 items to choose from! For indecisive types like me, this is a baffling ordeal. Not only do they offer burgers and fries, but also sandwiches, soups, salads, and full dinner meals like chicken, fish, and pot roast!
If you find their vast menu a little bit overwhelming, you can always play it safe and order their signature product: a Butter Burger. What makes a Butter Burger different from a regular hamburger? They apply butter to the bun before toasting it on the grill, which leaves the bread warm and delicious when it's brought out to your table. They are also very proud of their beef, which is never frozen and 100% US-produced. When you combine all of this with a mountain of fresh toppings, the results are simply delicious. And juicy.
Besides their burgers, Culver's prides itself on its custom dessert menu. Besides ice cream, floats, shakes and malts, they've also their signature frozen custard. The dessert section takes up a good 1/3 of the menu board, so if you stop by without trying the dessert you won't be getting the full Culver's experience.
I've been to Culver's about once a month since it opened, maybe six or seven times now. At first, it totally won me over. I liked the food, the atmosphere, and the attractive young ladies behind the counter (hey, I am in college after all). Eventually though, friends and family began to report stories of missing side orders, long lines, and orders made incorrectly.
Then there was the issue of value. Although the food tastes far better than McDonalds or Wendy's, it also costs significantly more. Culver's does not have a "Value Menu" of any sort and I've paid on average $7 to $9 dollars for a meal there. If I felt like getting ripped off, I'd just go to Carl's Jr.! Still, I had been lucky so far and continued to sing a song of praise for Culver's. That is, until recently.
The Big One
It was a Friday night, about two weeks ago. I went over to Culver's with a friend just after 9pm. He was ordering dinner but I had already eaten, so I decided tonight would be the night I would give their "famous frozen custard" a try. Frozen custard is similar to ice cream, only with more butterfat and less air. It's thicker and creamier, and available in a cup or a cone.
Hanging on the wall was a large sign that said "Flavor of the Day: Cherry Chocolate Chip." Sounds good, I thought to myself. I ordered one "Flavor of the day" in a cone and the total came to almost $3 dollars. I settled into a table with my little plastic number and waited. About 10 minutes later, a server walked up and handed me a strange looking ice cream cone wrapped in a napkin. Instead of cherries and chocolate chips, there were giant pecan nuts protruding in every direction! Yuck!
"Um, I don't think this is what I ordered" I said to the girl. She smiled awkwardly and walked away. It looked like I would have to take matters into my own hands, but not before grabbing some napkins, because this thing was already dripping down my arm!
I brought the whole mess up to the front counter and saw the girl I had ordered from. "Your sign says today's flavor is cherry chocolate chip, but that's not what I got here. What's going on?" I asked.
"That is tomorrow's flavor, they've already changed the sign" she said sweetly. "How would anyone know that, when your sign says TODAY's flavor?" I asked her. "Can we do anything about it?" She went and got the manager, an older looking woman with curly gray hair and a permanent scowl on her face. It was worse than a frown; it was the kind of expression that comes from years of hard work for low wages, and dealing with guys who complain about ice cream cones. Well, today wouldn't be her day.
I explained the situation to the manager, who spoke not a word. She grabbed the dripping mass from my hand and made a big show of throwing it away, arcing it high above her head before slamming it into the garbage can. "I can't believe she just did that" I thought to myself. The cashier asked what I would like instead. "Well, do you have cherry chocolate chip?" I asked. The old woman answered for her, and glared at me. "No! We only have vanilla!"
"Well, I guess I'll take the vanilla then" I said flatly. And do you know what? It really wasn't anything special. It tasted just like ordinary ice cream. It was so boring, so...plain vanilla. Here I could have just gone to McDonalds and gotten a soft serve cone for 89 cents and avoided the drama show, instead of paying almost $3 bucks for a "famous frozen custard."
I had really wanted to write a glowing review of Culvers, honestly I did! The burgers are delicious and I love the crinkle cut fries. The problem with Culver's is that it's not a great value for the price, and customer service means nothing to these people. They did not make sure I was satisfied when the error was clearly their fault (changing their sign a day early).
I would recommend trying it out once or twice if you're in the area, but it's not worth driving any great distance for. What I have observed is that over time, Culver's succumbs to the same problem that every fast food restaurant has: they are totally inconsistent. You might go there one time and love it, and the next visit everything goes horribly wrong.
While Culver's tries very hard to distance themselves from the typical image of a fast food franchise with their carpeted dining room and expansive menu, at the end of the day it is not much different than any other burger joint. Honestly though, the food is so addictively good that I'm sure I'll find myself back there before long.