Suburban staple Culver’s coming to Pullman, and franchisee hopes to open in more Chicago neighborhoods. ‘Get people working and it makes a difference.’

Suburban staple Culver’s coming to Pullman, and franchisee hopes to open in more Chicago neighborhoods. ‘Get people working and it makes a difference.’

Chicagoans used to have to head to the suburbs for Culver’s burgers and frozen custard, until a North Lawndale native brought the Wisconsin-based chain to the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

It took some convincing to get Culver’s comfortable with a location in a dense city neighborhood — something different for the chain founded in a Wisconsin village of fewer than 4,000, said franchise owner Baron Waller. Three years later, it’s his most successful location.

“You bring them the service, and they’ll come,” said Waller, who used to live in nearby Lake Meadows. “That’s how I felt about Bronzeville. ... And it’s proven to be true.”

Waller owns seven Culver’s, including one that opened in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend. Another is under construction in Pullman, on the South Side, and expected to open this fall.

Waller, 59, of Olympia Fields, said he plans to open more restaurants, including in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities that need more jobs. Each location employs 50 to 60 people, he said.

“I feel it’s the way to make changes in the community,” he said. “You bring jobs and get people working and it makes a difference.”

Waller co-owns two restaurants with longtime employees as part of a Culver’s mentorship program that aims to help successful managers become franchisees. He plans to work with additional mentees at future restaurants he opens and sees it as an opportunity to have owners who represent the neighborhoods where the restaurants are located.

“This changed my life, and these people are important to me, so let’s change their lives too,” he said.

Data on diversity in franchise ownership is scarce, but 2012 Census data show members of racial and ethnic minority groups own 30.8% of franchised businesses, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the International Franchise Association.

That’s higher than the percentage of nonfranchised businesses, but there was still a gap between minority representation in franchising and the overall population, said Earsa Jackson, chair of the International Franchise Association Foundation’s Diversity Institute.

Waller, who is Black, had a roundabout journey to the restaurant industry. He went to Lane Tech College Prep High School and worked as a computer analyst. After earning his MBA, he began working in sales at IBM.

But after 14 years with the company, Waller was looking for a change. He used money from his 401(k) and got a small-business loan to finance his first restaurant, in New Lenox, which opened about a decade ago.

Sales picked up quickly, and Waller, whose wife Janeen and nephew Bryon help run the business, added locations in Lockport, then Joliet, then Bronzeville.

He wasn’t the first to consider bringing the chain to the city. A Black former Culver’s franchisee filed a lawsuit against the company in 2013 alleging Culver’s blocked his attempts to open a restaurant in African American communities in Chicago. Culver’s “strongly and categorically denied the discrimination claims” and a jury sided with the restaurant, spokesman Eric Skrum said.

Culver’s, which has more than 800 restaurants, including 123 in Illinois, now has three in Chicago: the Bronzeville restaurant, one in Portage Park that opened soon after under different ownership, and Waller’s North Center location.

It’s the first Culver’s without a traditional drive-thru. Instead, the restaurant, next to the CTA Brown Line, has a walk-up window.

“It did take some convincing, showing them how it works in Chicago,” Waller said. “Here you have people walking around, using public transit, walking around the neighborhoods. You don’t always drive in a car.”

In Pullman, once a planned industrial community for the Pullman Palace Car Works, Culver’s will join restaurants Potbelly Sandwich Shop and One Eleven Food Hall, said David Doig, president of nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. The community wanted a family-oriented, sit-down restaurant, but other chains said the area needed more time to develop, he said.

The push to revitalize the historic neighborhood has been in the works for years, attracting employers like Method, Gotham Greens, Whole Foods and Amazon to a 180-acre development replacing a former Ryerson Steel plant. It also has drawn retailers including Walmart and Ross Dress for Less and the Pullman Community Center, an indoor athletic facility.

Waller received a $250,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant last year for the Pullman Culver’s. The city program uses funds generated by development in the Loop to support new construction or rehabilitation projects on commercial corridors on the South, West and Southwest sides.

Waller plans to step up recruiting ahead of the September opening. While getting applicants for jobs that pay $15 an hour hasn’t been a problem, finding employees who want to stay has been tougher, Waller said.

“We’re constantly hiring,” he said.