Monday, following months of speculation and input from fans, Doughboys—a popular chain restaurant podcast—finally announced the eating establishment they would be reviewing at Thursday night’s Turner Hall live show. Ultimately, they decided to visit a place that listeners have been begging them to cover since the podcast’s beginning. That’s right! They’re going to Culver’s.
The thriving burger chain opened its first location in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1984. Since then, they’ve expanded to more than 700 locations in 25 states. Though they’ve grown immensely in their 35-plus years in business, the bastion of butter burgers and king of custard continues to have its headquarters in the small Wisconsin city of Prairie du Sac. Debate if you must, be we think Culver’s is the proper choice and we’re excited to hear what they have to say about it.
Even though Culver’s is a no-brainer for a Doughboys episode in Wisconsin, that’s not to say the state is hurting for other local dining franchises. In fact, a lot of high-quality chains got their start here. So as we anxiously await Thursday’s show at Turner Hall, we decided to run down some other Wisconsin-based restaurant chains. For everyone’s sake, we decided to limit this list to chains that started in (or are presently headquartered in) Wisconsin that CURRENTLY HAVE AT LEAST EIGHT LOCATIONS. Let’s dig in.
Cafe Hollander (and other Lowlands Group restaurants)
In 2006, Lowlands Group gave Milwaukee’s East Side a taste of Dutch dining when they opened Cafe Hollander on Downer Avenue. Shortly after launching their flagship location, more restaurants followed. Cafe Centraal—now called Centraal Grand Cafe And Tappery—and Cafe Benelux followed, as well as Cafe Bavaria and four more Hollanders spread around Milwaukee’s suburbs and in Madison. When combining the five Hollanders with the aforementioned affiliate sites with identical menus, similar branding, and equally impressive selections of European beer (or “bier”), Lowlands presently boasts eight Grand Cafes, with more likely to come.
Milwaukee has a wealth of excellent coffee roasters and, among the impressive batch of bean dealers, Colectivo Coffee is probably the one that’s best-known. Great coffee certainly is one reason, but the vast presence it has throughout metro Milwaukee (and far beyond) also can’t hurt. The coffee chain that started with a single cafe way back in 1993—yes, as “Alterra” at that point, get over it already!—now has more than 20 locations. Of that bunch, 13 are in Southeast Wisconsin, three are in Madison, and a whopping five are in Chicago. Through the years, Colectivo has expanded into a bakery line, offered a sizable food menu at most locations, and transitioned into sometimes hosting concerts at a few of their venues (including The Back Room @ Colectivo, a nice 300-capacity venue that opened less than five years ago).
If it wasn’t for the existence of Culver’s, it’d be hard to argue against Cousins Subs being the chain the ‘Boys would visit during their Milwaukee tour stop. Founded in 1972 by cousins Bill Specht and Jim Sheppard, the family sandwich shop quickly ballooned in popularity on the strength of its “better bread, better subs” and saw locations sprouting up all over their native Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin. Currently, there are 99 Cousins stores—93 of them located in Wisconsin. Additionally, there are five in Chicago and a lone straggler that recently opened shop in Indiana. No word on whether Vincent Price will be featured in commercials for those locations. We’re guessing no.
Erbert & Gerbert’s
Sticking with the sub theme, Erbert & Gerbert’s is another renowned sandwich shop that got its start right here in Wisconsin. The first “Erb’s & Gerbs” was opened in Eau Claire by Kevin and Beth Schippers in 1988. With a stacked arsenal of delicious sandwiches with goofy names and fun gimmicks like putting the “guts” that are cut out of the bread on top of every sandwich, Erbert & Gerbert’s expanded fast. Now, people at more than 50 locations in 12 states can enjoy sandos with names like Narmer, Girf, Bornk, Pudder, and Jacob Bluefineger.
Falbo Bros Pizzeria
The first of five Madison-area pizza standbys on this list, Falbo Bros Pizzeria was started by two University Of Wisconsin grads back in 1992. Since that outset, the chain has grown to a total of six locations in or around Madison, a new-ish location in Shorewood, and another three in Iowa. We’ve never been there, so that’s pretty much all we feel comfortable saying about it. Sorry!
One place we HAVE been, however, is George Webb. In fact, we went to every single George Webb in the world in one day. It wasn’t fun! That’s not entirely the restaurant’s fault, though. In fact, if kept to one location per day, you’ll usually be happy with the selection of breakfast standards, burgers, sandwiches, and other entrees available for 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds a week. George Webb first came into existence on Milwaukee’s East Side in 1948. Since then, they’ve expanded (almost) statewide before many of the franchises branched off to become a short-lived chain called Griddlers around 10 years ago. Despite that split, Webb still has almost 30 locations—all in the state of Wisconsin—where they serve up American classics to all people at all hours. And when the Brewers score five or more runs, customers can get five burgers for $5. Better yet, should the Brew Crew ever win 12 straight, they give away free burgers for folks to eat…or bury.
With a total of nine locations, Glass Nickel narrowly earns mention on this list. On top of its number of restaurants (which extend from Green Bay to Brookfield), the company that was opened in Madison by founders Brian Glassel and Tim Nicholson in 1997 deserves to be mentioned because their specialty pizzas are great. Sadly, there are no more locations in Milwaukee, but if you happen upon one when you’re in places like Madison, Appleton, or Wausau, it’s worth a stop.
We’re not going to research this, but we’re pretty sure Ian’s invented Mac & Cheese Pizza. Prove us wrong! (Don’t prove us wrong, we don’t actually care if someone else did it first.) The Madison-based pizzeria has been feeding drunk people and helping folks through hangovers since 2005. For the record, their pizza is also good in non-drinking situations too. Anyway, after its State Street location took Wisconsin’s capital by storm, Ian’s branched out. Since that outset, it’s added two more Madison locations, as well as a trio of Milwaukee shops, and a restaurant in both Seattle and Denver.
Since opening its first location in 1965, Kwik Trip has expanded rapidly and now has a presence in almost every Wisconsin city and township (except Milwaukee for some reason), with more than 400 locations in its home state. Along the way, the La Crosse-based convenience store chain crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota, where it currently has approximately 150 more locations in 95 cities, and new stores opening all the time. Adding to the Midwestern convenience store’s flourishing empire is a strikingly similar—but noticeably different—Kwik Trip variant called Kwik Star that exists only in Iowa. Though a gas station first and foremost, Kwik Trip’s offerings have increased in kind with its empire. At this point, the chain has its own line of coffee, doughnuts, pizza, sandwiches, chips, beer, and it’s a place were customers can stock up on grocery essentials while the fill up on gas and snacks.
Who could’ve guessed that a restaurant with a name as unappetizing as Pizza Pit would last so long? Not us. Miraculously, the pizzeria has managed to hang around for at least 30 years by our recollection. While the once-mighty regional pizza chain has endured financial troubles and has seen its number of locations dip from 29 to just 14 in recent years, Pizza Pit still has something of a stronghold in Madison and its surrounding cities with 12 locations in or in the vicinity of Dane County. There are also two Pizza Pits in Iowa.
Rocky Rococo has been a part of Wisconsin’s pizza-eating tradition since the Madison-based restaurant opened its first location way back in 1974. A couple years later, a mustachioed man named James Martin Pedersen put on a white suit, donned some glasses, and portrayed the pizza chain’s eponymous character. Tragically, Pedersen passed away in 2016 at the age of 67, but his image lives on through Rocky’s corporate branding and in their humorous (and occasionally perplexing) ads in print…and on buses. Rocky Rococo’s food can be enjoyed at approximately 40 locations that are strewn all over Wisconsin, as well as one in Minnesota and another in Washington.
Stone Creek Coffee
The same year Alterra (now “Colectivo”) was getting off the ground, another roaster was also trying to break into the Milwaukee coffee market. Some 27 years later, it appears to have worked. Presently, Stone Creek has a total of 13 cafes, including five in Milwaukee, seven in the surrounding suburbs, and one in Chicago.
Tom’s Drive In
If you live anywhere near the Fox Cities, you’ve probably been to a Tom’s Drive In. And if you’ve been to a Tom’s Drive In, we’re willing to bet you love it. Founded in Appleton 60 years ago, Tom’s has been “a tasty favorite since 1960.” Through the years, they’ve added great modern riffs on their outstanding flame broiled burgers such as the Big Tom and the Tominator. Similarly, they’ve also added new locations. At this time, the beloved burger chain stands pat at a total of eight locations, including restaurants in Appleton, Little Chute, Neenah, Menasha, and one that opened in Sheboygan not too long ago.
Before we bring this list home in especially cheesy fashion, we have to acknowledge that the origin story of Toppers Pizza actually starts in another state. The first Toppers opened in the college town of Champaign, Illinois in 1991. However, the late night option and Topperstix originators expanded to Wisconsin in 1993 when a Whitewater location opened. Currently, Whitewater is the home of Toppers headquarters and Wisconsin is home to more than half of the delivery chain’s 54 locations. You can also find Toppers in a few Minnesota cities, in two Indiana locations, and at on place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ironically, the restaurant that got its start in Illinois no longer has any locations in the state.