When the new Culver’s at 7310 W. Dempster St. opened on Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, George Alpogianis put on the same welcoming face he shows to anyone walking into his , Morton Grove’s most prominent family diner, one block east.
Instead of ruing the first competition for the dining dollar in his shopping center in a generation, Kappy’s general manager Alpogianis walked over to Culver’s to greet Culver's co-owner Kim Struzynski with open arms.
“I told her welcome, it's a nice addition to the shopping center, it’s great for the area and competition is good,” he said. “I think it’s going to draw more people here.”
Is Culver’s a Kappy’s competitor?
"Not at all,” said Alpogianis. “They’re still a fast-food place. They do a good job, I like them, but we’re two totally different entities. A couple of (dining) options are always good.”
Thankful for Kappy’s welcome
Struzynski, opening with husband Tony their third Culver’s, was thankful for Alpogianis’ visit.
“It was very nice to have him come over and welcome us,” said Struzynski, who has moved to downtown Des Plaines from southwest Michigan. “It was a nice surprise. We both have a different menu, a different atmosphere. I’ve been over there many times to eat. I think we can both benefit.”
The Struzynskis, who ran a pair of Culver’s in Stevensville, Mich., and Elkhart, Ind., chose the Morton Grove site for its familiarity for business partner Lee Eschenbach.
“My partner used to operate Ponderosa (a since-closed chain steakhouse) across the street,” said Kim Struzynski. “For years he’s been trying to get us to come over here. Morton Grove was so wonderful to us.
“My husband’s from Chicago, had a lot of family in Skokie, Des Plaines, going north toward Wheeling. We’ve known about the area a long while," she said. "We looked at Golf Mill briefly, but stuck on this spot and it would have taken something special to lure us away from this spot.”
The new franchisees were so optimistic they committed to the restaurant, a newly-built building on the site of an old satellite branch of , during the depths of the recession in 2009.
“They’re not real keen on restaurant loans,” Kim Struzynski said of many lending institutions. "Thank goodness we have a good relationship with our bank (Town Bank in Milwaukee). They were willing to take a chance on it. With the economy and everything, we have faith in this area that it will come back.
“Culver’s corporate people came out and checked the site. They were really, really excited about it and have gotten a few comment cards from Morton Grove residents, to come out to Morton Grove," she said. "It’s a great area to come into.”
Hoping for $2 million annually
Struzynski’s goal is $2 million in annual sales. She has hired a full staff of 65, with 16 typically working the lunchtime shift and at least 20 on duty for dinner. However, she expects to hire additional workers and encourages job-seekers to apply directly to her or a manager in the restaurant.
And, yes, Struzynski, who takes regular turns in the kitchen preparing the chain’s trademark “butterburger” and other staples, eats her own food. Only 5-foot-4, 107 pounds, she estimates she eats at least two double cheeseburgers each day – but does not gain weight.
The butterburger is named for the butter toasted into the bun, not the meat, which is fresh, not frozen, when prepared. Amazingly, the burger, a small salad and a diet cola is advertised as just 437 calories. Struzynski said burgers are cooked to order at the counter, while other entrees like chicken and fish sandwiches can be ordered grilled instead of fried as healthier options.
Another Culver’s specialty is the concrete mixer, ice cream prepared on the spot in special machines.
The Struzynskis will eventually scout a second north-suburban location for another Culver’s. Closest outlets now are in Rosemont, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove.
They trained in the Rosemont Culver’s, which is how they discovered neighboring Des Plaines.
“It’s a straight shot down Dempster,” Kim Struzynski said. “It’s a nice little city, nice downtown with the Metra. It’s good having major thoroughfare to get to work in bad weather.”