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Under the Toque: Culver’s Doak says listening leads to happy patrons

Under the Toque: Culver’s Doak says listening leads to happy patrons

For Jim Doak, the key to being successful in research and development is quite simple: Listen to what the guests want. That basic notion is largely what drew him to his current position as executive chef at Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver’s.

“The philosophy here is that you talk to guests every day, whether they’re talking about allergies or nutrition or a new menu idea,” he says. “We do whatever we can to make sure guests leave Culver’s happy.”

Doak has logged nearly 30 years in the restaurant industry and has been working in research and development for most of that time, with stints at such restaurant companies as Bob Evans Farms, Metromedia Restaurant Group and Applebee’s. At 360-unit Culver’s, his challenge is to meet guests’ needs with a balance of innovation and tradition. As he keeps his eye on the latest trends, such as the booming snack daypart, he also works to ensure the quality of the chain’s staple menu items of ButterBurgers and frozen custard.

Tell me about your job at Culver’s.

I’m responsible for the overall menu and food and beverage strategy for the company. I develop all new products and work on product enhancements and partnerships with the supply chain to manage the overall product quality and sourcing. In addition, I have responsibility for driving strategic planning for the company. It’s a very hands-on strategic position. I’m the entire R&D staff. I really look to leverage our supplier partners to grow our business. I use them and their folks as an extension of our R&D team.

We also tap our franchisee community for new-product ideas. We’ve taken and formalized some new-product ideas. It’s a very collaborative environment, and that’s what is necessary in this day and age. Everybody is operating very lean and mean. I think you’re going to see R&D teams really scaled back and more dependent on the supplier side of the business to supply products and ideas.

What’s an example of a menu idea that came from a franchisee?

A good one that came from our franchisees was a dinner program that one tested in his restaurant. He had some good results, and we took it and “Culverized” it and put it to a larger test. We were able to reach or exceed the results that he saw in his three-restaurant test. We were able to leverage it to benefit the entire system. We saw an increase in dinner category sales of up to 60 percent.


Use a combination of fruits and vegetables when building salads to add layers of contrasting flavors and textures.

Grilling adds the most flavor to both savory and sweet items, such as figs and Gorgonzola or a grilled fennel salad.

Grilling adds the most flavor to both savory and sweet items, such as figs and Gorgonzola or a grilled fennel salad.

How do you weave in innovation when it comes to traditional Culver’s staples, such as the ButterBurger?

The ButterBurger is a wonderful platform, and we have been able to build off that. We’ve done a barbecue-Cheddar burger and a mushroom-Swiss burger. We’ve been able to use different flavor combinations to broaden that category as well.

In what other areas do you tend to innovate?

The flavor categories we have a lot of latitude with are Southwest, Latin, barbecue, and hot and spicy. Not so much with Asian. We’re not going to be at the forefront or leading edge of a flavor trend. We’re going to lag back and let the guests drive because we want the marketplace to settle in and let us know that it’s a long-term trend and not a fad.

What are some trends that you’re leveraging at Culver’s?

One of the hottest trends right now is snacking. So we are looking at snack items that would work at lunch but also at that snack time. We have a number of craveable snack items. So we’re looking at what will fulfill that need for what they call the fourth daypart. We’re looking for items that are portable, deliver big flavor and are at a value.

How does snacking fit into the Culver’s model?

We introduced iced coffee last year. We can deliver a wonderful root beer float. We’re also going after the fruit cooler category with our lemon ice. For us, it’s about shakes and concretes—those are the things we’re known for and things we continue to offer the guests. [We have] the ability to customize on the beverage side and on the menu side. The ability to customize our menu is so critical, and that’s part of our philosophy.

How do you ensure quality across the Culver’s brand?

Our operators are in the restaurants working every day. They know their guests, and they’re making ButterBurgers and frozen custard every day. It’s that involvement, that commitment to Culver’s and really delivering on that Culver’s promise.

What do you like most about your job?

It’s ever-changing. I have direct access to the founder of the company, which is wonderful. We have a great leadership team. It’s very collaborative. The franchisee community is very collaborative and extremely engaged, and that’s one of the things that really excites me. And who doesn’t love working with frozen custard and great burgers? The brand has such a great, rich history. It’s going to be 25 years old next year. It’s fun to watch it grow and evolve.


Title: director of research and menu development and executive chef, Culver Franchising System Inc.

Birth date: May 25, 1962

Hometown: Houston

Education: bachelor of science, the Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Houston

Career highlights: surrounding himself with a talented team at Metromedia Restaurant Group in Dallas and creating a collaborative group of chefs; winning NRN’s MenuMasters Awards at both Bennigan’s and Applebee’s; cooking with many talented people from other companies

And the challenges?

Being a growing chain and going into new markets, it can be challenging to get menu items we want because of the geography. Also, we have a very loyal base of guests. If there’s a challenge, it’s making sure that we’re meeting their changing needs. But as long as we’re able to deliver great food and hospitality, we’re going to continue to see guests come in.

What do you find rewarding about being an R&D chef, as opposed to a traditional restaurant chef?

The real difference is that you don’t get that immediate gratification of knowing you gave someone a good meal. You have to wait a little while. I use a solid foundation of culinary skills combined with being a marketer, an operator and a businessperson to create products that deliver sales. That’s the name of the game. You can’t be creative for creativity’s sake. You have to be strategic so that what you’re doing is moving the business forward. It doesn’t matter how cool what you did is if it’s not generating sales and profit.

Did you know you would go into R&D when you went to hospitality school?

I had no idea. I knew I loved the restaurant side of the business, and my passion for food just grew and it became the part of the business I loved the best.

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