Alicia Sandefur stands in front of the counter of the new Culver’s, still under construction when the photo was taken June 25. The restaurant is set to open July 14.
LARGO – Parrish and Alicia Sandefur have never run a restaurant before. In a bold new start last year, they sold their lake house in Wisconsin, moved with their two teenagers to Pinellas County and invested $3.2 million of their own money to purchase the property at 3500 E. Bay Drive in Largo and turn it into Culver’s.
The realization of their efforts opens Monday, July 14. It’s the seventh location in Florida so far for the franchise, which is known for its frozen custard and Butter Burgers.
“But it’s a lot more than just that,” Alicia Sandefur explained. “Culver’s has such a wonderful feeling.”
Alicia sat in the Dunkin Donuts across West Bay Drive from the restaurant as a construction crew paved the driveway June 25. Her friendly smile and open demeanor, along with a bag of plastic coins granting free scoops of frozen custard, prompted more than one conversation with customers eager for the opening of the new restaurant.
“I’ll be there opening day,” said one such future customer, Colleen Noyes of Clearwater. “I’ll be there every day.”
Noyes said her friend from Wisconsin spoke highly of the restaurant. She and her friends live close by and were looking forward to making the place a frequent stop.
“We have a group. We’re all going to be over there,” she said.
Alicia said she hoped that such gatherings will flourish in the “good family feel” of Culver’s.
“You’ll have people that come in every day, every couple of days. You get to know them by name,” she said, explaining that the philosophy starts at the top, with CEO, whom she’s come to know by name. “Craig Culver has a way about that. He wants it to be like you’re welcoming somebody into your home.”
The Sandefurs are an extension of the family-centered model, though the restaurant business is a new experience for them. Until recently, Parrish Sandefur was an executive at Briggs & Stratton, often traveling internationally to help set up and oversee engine-manufacturing plants. When the company offered to buy out his contract, Parrish had a chance to consider what else he might want to do with his life.
The Sanderfurs, who met at a high school in Michigan, didn’t encounter the Culver’s brand until the 1990s, after they moved to Wisconsin and were married.
“There’s one on every corner in every neighborhood in Wisconsin,” Alicia explained. “My husband just absolutely fell in love with it.”
Parrish even wrote a small business plan based on the concept of Culver’s while he was earning his MBA. But he had a good job at Briggs & Stratton, one that he might have kept until retirement. The buy-out offer gave him a new opportunity.
“I knew his back of the mind had always thought about this Culver’s thing,” his wife explained. “When you’re in a corporate environment, you don’t really even give yourself a chance to explore that, because you’re so busy.”
The couple wanted to retire in Florida and found out that the company had decided to open new franchises in the Florida market. They wanted to include their children in the decision. Evan, now 17, was still in high school and Leah, now 19, was graduating and planned to go to college in Wisconsin.
“We had a family meeting. We just decided, yep, we’re going to move our whole family down here to Florida,” Alicia said. “It was a big adjustment.”
Leah decided instead to follow her parents south and attend the University of Central Florida. Despite his mother’s worry, Evan has flourished at Shorecrest Preparatory School.
The move has been only part of the process. There were various stages of testing and training before Parrish was approved as a Culver’s franchise owner, including 16 weeks training at the corporate headquarters in Sauk City, Wisconsin. But at every step of the way, the Sandefurs got a green light to keep moving forward. The lake house sold quickly. Culver’s approved of the couple’s background and financials.
“It was all falling into place. I guess if one of those things wouldn’t have worked, this wouldn’t have worked. We’re a working family; we didn’t necessarily have the money,” Alicia said. “Who would have ever thought?”
The family moved to Florida last August. They rented a townhouse in Clearwater Beach and began the process of looking for a suitable restaurant property in the area. They needed enough land to support 52 parking spaces because drive-through customers park and wait with a number on the dashboard for their food to be prepared fresh and delivered to their car.
They considered property on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, a plot near Bay Pines and another on Ulmerton Road before they settled on the site of the former Farmer’s Kitchen on East Bay Drive. The building was demolished and rebuilt to the exact specifications of a medium-sized Culver’s model the Sandefurs chose.
As construction continued, the Sandefurs hired 72 part-time and full-time employees to work at the new restaurant. The managers are already trained and working in Port Charlotte, where the first Culver’s in Florida was built and opened. Parrish has been working alongside his employees, whom he’s paying to work despite construction delays at his own franchise.
The Sandefurs will begin training the rest of the their crew on site starting July 7. Then, they will open the restaurant for a “family day,” inviting only employees and their families to a welcoming party on July 12.
The restaurant is set to open to the public July 14. Alicia said she knows that there are several residents from Wisconsin and the Midwest who are excited for the opening. Many wave her down when they see the Culver’s logo on her vehicle or white polo shirt and ask for an update.
“When you believe in a product, and see how excited it makes people, it makes all this construction worry overshadowed,” she said.
Alicia said Culver’s has a policy of hiring inclusively. She’s looking forward to reaching out to senior communities and asking residents if they’d like to work for just a few hours a day, filling coffee and chatting with customers. One of her current hires is an 18 year old with Down’s syndrome.
“His mom called me and said, ‘I saw Culver’s is coming and I know Culver’s hired people with disability,’” Alicia said. “You give everybody a chance to work.”
She said she can’t wait until the community understands and embraces Culver’s family-friendly philosophy. She wants the place to be welcoming like a similar franchise was to her daughter’s cheerleading squad, whose owner kept the place open late so the squad could gather after games. She’s ready for customers to come in just for the custard flavor of the day. She is excited to welcome them into the homey dining room that is a big part of the restaurant.
“It’s not like any other fast food,” she said.
Eventually, the Sandefurs hope to expand and open more than one Culver’s in Pinellas County. The company allows a couple to open as many as five total, but emphasize that expansion should be very controlled.
“They want the owner to be very present,” Alicia explained. “My husband will be working in that restaurant, overseeing everything for a very, very long time, till you feel very comfortable that you have a wonderful (general manager). And then we’ll probably start our second.”
But so far, the Sandefurs are absorbing the many life changes that have come with opening their first restaurant over the past year, which coincides with their 25th wedding anniversary.
“This is a big year for us,” Alicia said. “I can’t tell you enough how happy I am, how proud I am to be a part of this company.”
Pinellas County’s first Culver’s, at 3500 E. Bay Drive, will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. starting July 14.
A Culver’s in Tampa, to be opened by different franchise owners, also is in the works.