From a single store to multiple franchises in five states: how S&L Companies creates people-first partnerships 

One of the best ways to start a new business is by capitalizing on a franchise opportunity. Not only do franchise opportunities come with established brand awareness, but the franchiser is also on hand to offer extensive business support.   

Jeff Liegel and Chad Stevenson formed S&L Companies in 1994, when they opened the doors of their first Culver’s restaurant in Portage, Wisconsin. Since then, the company has grown to 94 Culver’s franchises in five states.

“We continue to grow,” begins Jeff Liegel, CEO. “We have three openings here in February and we tend to always have about 20 projects that we’re working on for future growth. It may take us a few years to bring those to fruition, as development can take some time these days, but so far, it’s been great. The new CEO and President of Culver’s, Rick Silva, has been an outstanding support, as has Jim Esposito, the COO.” 

Culver’s owner-operators have one thing in common, and that’s a commitment to the founding principles of hospitality, quality, freshness and service to the community. Owner-operators are critical to Culver’s success because they’re engaged in their business every day, working side-by-side with their team, leading by example. 

Over the years, these shared values have led to thriving relationships between Culver’s and its successful owner-operators, such as S&L. Likewise, Jeff and Chad are always available to their partners to troubleshoot, coach, strategize and work through any problems. The duo, as Culver’s owners-operators themselves, have multiple resources with experience in the industry. 

“I started in the hospitality and catering sector when I was in high school,” Jeff continues. “I worked in a Culver’s business back when it was restaurant number two. I grew up on a dairy farm, and I knew that was something I didn’t want to go into. As such, I studied hospitality and catering and was running restaurants midway through my course. That was 30 years ago, and here we are today, one of the largest franchisees in the country.    

“When Chad and I first started the business, we were heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurants. Now, our jobs are mentoring people and teaching them how to become owners. Of course, we keep our hands in still, manning the grill and getting behind the counters. We like to remain relevant, and we do enjoy that side of the business. It’s almost like a day off if we get to work in the kitchen or work front of house, right alongside the team. We still have a lot of fun with that,” he enthuses.  

Heartfelt hospitality 

Jeff and Chad take pride in the Culver’s brand and are passionate about building and operating successful Culver’s franchises. Together with Culver’s Franchising System, it is their mission that every guest who chooses Culver’s leaves happy. This mission and the founding principles can be seen in every single one of their restaurants. 

The duo works with its owner-operators right from the beginning. In fact, even prior to that, since most partners have risen through the ranks of their own restaurants through the mentorship program.  

“We incorporate a lot of digital technology, such as tablets, into our operational processes. We enable our teams across the country through comprehensive training and try to stay on the cutting edge of innovation. That said, Culver’s is all about the people. You won’t see us go down the route of all-consuming automation or anything like that. We’ll always remain focused on the personal approach.” 

Hospitality has always been near and dear to the brand’s heart. So, dining in or on the go, teams make a point of treating customers the way they’d want to be treated. From holding a door to asking about the meal, it’s a pleasure to serve and it’s always done with a smile.  

Jeff shares the business’ approach to fostering this positive environment. “We reinforce that the opportunities available to owner-operators are available to everyone. If someone is willing to stick it out and put in the time, they too can own their own Culver’s. There are plenty of opportunities to go around.” 

Culver’s is proud to source the best ingredients and its promise to never compromise on quality continues through to the way meals are prepared. Fresh, never frozen beef and whole, white meat chicken are sourced from America’s family farms.  

“The brand cares about where food comes from,” Jeff continues. “Everything is cooked to order. While we can change that menu up a little from time to time, the basis of real, home-cooked food remains the same.” 

Partner perspective 

Indeed, this focus on core operational values is true across the business and its franchises. “We focus on our core markets,” Jeff continues, “and haven’t opened in any new territories. As such, despite recent supply chain disruptions and socioeconomic challenges, our supply chain has proven to be robust. Our efforts have paid off. Our vendors have been outstanding in terms of trying to either freeze or reduce costs where needed. Likewise, Culver’s has done an outstanding job supporting us in our efforts.” 

Looking to the future, Jeff shares his hopes for S&L moving forward. “We want to continue to develop great owners, which is pretty much our primary and only plan. Chad and I view this business, not from the perspective of 94 restaurants, but from an individual partner perspective. We want to make sure each restaurant is as successful as it can be. The better we can develop our owners and general managers, the happier everybody will be. Culver’s is still a family-run brand,” he concludes. “With the addition of Rick on board, it’s a great combination and has been outstanding so far, positioning us ideally for continued success and a promising future ahead.”