Fast food from NJ and WI
Culver's and Jersey Mike's arrive.
by Sally Mitani
The arrival of a brand new fast food chain restaurant is always a surprise--are there any left we haven't seen? Actually, two new ones just hit town.
On the southeast side of town is Jersey Mike's, selling that Jersey beach boardwalk specialty, the sub. Not that you can't get a sub in Ann Arbor. The world's fastest-growing fast food franchise--the one that seems to think "sub" took its name from a type of public transportation--specializes in the cheap, lo-cal variety, and Quizno's, Jimmy John's, Potbelly, DiBella's, and our own Sottini's do a slightly better job. But Jersey Mike's is famous for its high-quality rendition: bread with some substance, meat sliced to order, and the "Mike's Way" option (simply called "everything" in Jersey). "Mike's Way" means your server applies lettuce, tomato, and onion and then throws down vinegar and oil like Jackson Pollock putting paint to canvas.
Twenty-five-year-old franchise owner Mike Wagner grew up in Ann Arbor, graduated from Huron High, and learned about Jersey Mike's from the Travel Channel. He was so impressed that he and a partner started three stores in Virginia, where he was going to school, but he says he always intended to come back to Michigan. Here, he has teamed up with Peter Shipman, and together they bought the rights to open about a half-dozen stores in Washtenaw County (future locations undecided). Wagner says the rapidly expanding company eventually wants to put fifty stores in Michigan.
Jersey Mike's also does a Philly cheese steak, with rib eye shipped in from Philly. Wagner says the meat isn't put on the grill until you order the sandwich--a nicety rarely observed in Philly itself.
Getting your food fast is kind of what fast food is about, but Wagner says Jersey Mike's actually trains its staff to slow it down and enjoy the interaction: "Banter--where we're talking back and forth to the customer--is very important. We train on banter. It's the most important thing as far as keeping the brand
going." And how do you train people to banter? "Well, we do some training, but mainly, you hire happy, friendly people and you let them be themselves. In the hiring process, when they come in and they're smiling, you know they're the right person."
Jersey Mike's, 3650 Carpenter Rd., 477-9930. Daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. jerseymikes.com
It seems almost willfully unimaginative to shackle an ambitious fast food chain to putty-colored buildings with soothing blue and white awnings, and further to saddle it with the anodyne name of Culver's. Especially since said chain is in possession of a trademarked sandwich with a lethally delicious name like ButterBurger. Somehow, one suspects that Culver's (named after the Culver family, which founded and still owns it) succeeded in spite of its marketing, not because of it.
Ann Arbor's first Culver's opened June 4, in front of Lowe's on Jackson Rd. Like Jersey Mike's, it's competing for best of breed, not cheapest. Two auto mechanics from down the road, who were there opening day waiting for their ButterBurgers, knew all about Culver's (there's one in Belleville) and said if price weren't an issue they'd eat there every day. Culver's burgers are made to order, from never-frozen beef, and cost about twice as much as McDonald's. People were certainly willing to pay that price on opening day: at noon on June 4, Culver's parking lot was as glutted as its patrons' arteries.
Okay, that's not really fair. Culver's does offer an artery-busting triple bacon cheeseburger with fries or onion rings, but it also scrupulously publishes each menu item's calorie count and nutritional information, as well as the presence or absence of a long list of allergens like gluten, MSG, and peanuts. It also offers salads, which the counter staffers were recommending to customers who asked for advice. And the menu includes some items that sound less like fast food than blue plate specials from the family diner in Sauk City, Wisconsin, where the chain got its start: pot roast or chopped steak with mashed potatoes and green beans.
The ButterBurger name--and this might be a major disappointment if you're into the thrill-seeking aspect of fast food--turns out to refer to some barely detectible butter brushed on the bun, though franchise owner Karen Richard says: "In mom-and-pop places in Wisconsin, I've seen them actually put a pat of butter on the burger itself. It's kind of scary."
Culver's is also known for its frozen custard. A richer cousin of soft-serve ice cream, it's insanely popular in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Richard, who also owns a Culver's in Jackson, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying her opening day. Many of her seventy-five employees, on the other hand, looked frankly terrified at the hungry throngs piling through the doors. Richard, tan and muscular as a gym teacher, cheered her young staff on like a veteran coach, making jokes, slapping backs, occasionally giving a quick commiserating hug.
Culver's, 5910 Jackson Rd., 741-1111. Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. culvers.com
[Originally published in July, 2012.]