From ALCOA to Alcoa, that’s Ron Dreser’s career in a nutshell. From making aluminum in Davenport, Iowa, to making ButterBurgers in Blount County, this trained industrial engineer with an MBA from the University of Tennessee is planting the Culver’s flag in these foothills.

If the first question is “What’s a Culver’s?” the second has to be “What’s a ButterBurger?”

Blount Countians will know soon enough, at least by the beginning of next year when the restaurant opens at Hamilton Crossing next to Moe’s in Alcoa.

Culver’s is a fast-casual restaurant chain based in Wisconsin, with home offices in the adjoining villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac.

Ron and Anita Dreser opened their first Culver’s on Kingston Pike in Knoxville on Sept. 12, 2017, exactly one year after Ron started his first day of Culver’s discovery training. That’s what the company calls putting would-be franchise-holders through their paces before allowing them to be an owner-franchisee. It’s part of the company’s requirement. You can’t just own a Culver’s restaurant, you have to run it too.

Midwest restaurant chain

Culver’s has more than 700 restaurants. While new to the restaurant business after 30 years with manufacturing companies, Dreser seems to have a knack for this new career track. In the latest first quarter, Culver’s Knoxville location ranked in the company’s top 10 percent in sales. The restaurant also won the company’s Newcomer of the Year Award.

Ron Dreser said he planned all along to make Blount County his second location after West Knoxville. The response he’s gotten from his first just reinforced that notion.

“You’d be amazed when I opened that restaurant at the number of people who said, ‘When you going to come to Blount County?’ I mean every day they ask.”

The Blount County location will be a full-size restaurant, around 4,500 square feet like the Knoxville Culver’s, with over 100 dining room seats and about 25 on the fully covered patio and a drive-thru. Employees on staff will number 70 to 75.

Menu with variety

The food offerings are varied with items like Spinach Artichoke Chicken BLT rotating through the menu with signature items like the Fresh Frozen Custard and, of course, the ButterBurger. In case you were wondering, the ButterBurger is not Paula Dean’s dream patty.

“We don’t do any butter on the burger, it’s all on the bun. We butter the top and toast the bun,” Dreser said.

The patty is 100% beef that comes from an area of Nebraska within about 300 miles of where it is processed. The beef is ground within 15 hours of delivery to the restaurants and never frozen, he said.

Back to the butter. It’s real, right? You know, like not margarine?

“It’s actual butter, I’m from Wisconsin. It’s Wisconsin butter. All of the cheese is from Wisconsin, too. You think of Wisconsin with the stuff we serve.” Got it.

Supper club to casual dining

The Culver family operated supper clubs before Craig Culver founded the first Culver’s restaurant in 1984. Dreser figures that influence is shown in the the variety of today’s menu items that go beyond burger. North Atlantic Cod, for example.

“We sell a lot of cod loin. You ask me what’s my favorite thing on the menu, it’s probably the fish. We’re known for burgers but I love my fish,” Dreser said.

The menu was an issue when it came to what to put on the billboard for the Knoxville location. As a franchisee, Dreser gets company assistance with advertising.

“I’ve got a marketing guy that I call and I say, ‘John, what do we want to do with our billboard?’ And he sends me some proofs, and I say I don’t like ‘em because I want the Culver’s (type size) bigger because we’re in a new market.”

Dreser didn’t like the billboard tagline either.

“I don’t care about what the tagline is in Wisconsin, where there are 300 of ’em and everybody knows the tagline for Culver’s is ‘Welcome to Delicious.’ People in Tennessee don’t know that.”

He also didn’t care for the image of a glass filled with a company favorite, the Fresh Frozen Custard. Not visual enough for the restaurant’s billboard.

“So I said, ‘I want a ButterBurger and I want a Turtle Sunday and I want the biggest Culver’s I can put on there, and I want how to get there.’ So they had to make me a whole new billboard. Not everybody makes a Turtle Sunday with the caramel and the chocolate and the cherry on top and the pecans around it.”

Culver’s No. 1

While switching from manufacturing metals to serving up food might seem a stretch, Dreser had an edge going way back.

“Culver’s started in ’84 and I grew up about 45 minutes from the first one,” he said, noting he had graduated from high school in 1983. His future wife’s parents ran a grocery store in a small town, and when Ron and Anita would drive back and forth between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the store, they would stop at the Culver’s on the way — the only Culver’s back then.

As years passed Culver’s became a chain, and the Dresers moved to Tennessee, where he worked at a plant in Morristown. At one point they decided to become Culver’s franchise owners.

“Got approved. We decided then to not do it because my first kid was getting ready to go to college, and I wasn’t sure I could take a chance,” Ron Dreser said.

The idea faded but never disappeared.

“Every time we drove back to Wisconsin, there were Culver’s along the way, and they kept moving down south. So one day we were on our way back, it was July of 2016, she says to me, ‘I think maybe we should think about that again.’ And I said, ‘Are you serious?’”

Early next year, Blount Countians will see just how serious the Dresers are about matching classic Wisconsin specialties to appetites in Maryville and Alcoa.

Bob has served in a variety of roles since joining The Daily Times in the 90s. He currently is editor of the business section. When someone gets promoted, retires or gets hired at a new job in Blount County, he's the man to email.

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