The day John Elam has been dreaming about since he was 16 has finally arrived.

Elam will open the doors to his own restaurant Monday morning along with his wife, Kathy, and business partners Kevin and Sandy Adams.

The Elams and Adams are the owners of Sahuarita's Culver's, a restaurant known for its ButterBurgers, frozen custard and Wisconsin cheese curds.

"I'm anxious, nervous, excited — every emotion you can imagine," John said last week.

Sahuarita and Green Valley residents have been waiting impatiently for the restaurant to open since they first heard it was coming last July, but Elam has been waiting much longer.

John Elam, 51, has been in the restaurant business since he was a teenager in Albuquerque. Until recently, he was the general manager of the Culver's in Sierra Vista, which opened in March 2015, and is owned by the Adams couple. He's had such a great time working for the organization that he knew that when he opened his own restaurant he it wanted it to be a Culver's.

He and Kathy both love the Midwestern hospitality-vibe of the company.

"We find it very appealing, it's like 'Welcome to our house. Come on in and enjoy a meal,'" Kathy said. "The restaurants all have a very hometown feel, it's appealing."

Opening a Culver's isn't as easy as opening up your wallet and plopping down money.

To be granted a franchise, prospective owners are required to spend one week at a Culver's restaurant where they must perform every job, and they're rated on it. Senior leaders then decide if they are good enough to attend Culver's mentee program, which requires a four-month stay in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

The Elams had long known they wanted to form a business partnership with the Adamses. They'd been friends for years and they'd already experienced success together.

Kevin Adams was the recipient of the restaurant chain's Newcomer Award after he and John Elam opened the Sierra Vista restaurant in 2015. It was also named Large Business of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2017. The Sierra Vista restaurant split $50,000 among its crew members last year when it won the chain's Culver's Crew Challenge after having made the top five for two years in a row. 

The couples knew they wanted to open another Culver's in Southern Arizona and spent two years looking for locations (well before they knew if John would be selected for the mentee program). They ultimately decided on Sahuarita and the South Nogales Highway site because they believe there will be continued growth in that area.

"The Town of Sahuarita and Green Valley have been awesome," John said. "We couldn't ask for a better partnership. They've welcomed us with open arms and gone above and beyond to help us out."

Town officials allowed the Elams to interview prospective employees at Town Hall every Tuesday for four months. They hired about  80 of the 100 people they interviewed, Kathy said.

Every time someone finds out they're the owners of the new Culver's, people tell them how excited they are and ask about the opening date, she said.

Before the hiring process began, the Elams selected an architecture firm and building contractor, both of whom must follow plans provided by Culver's.

The whole process has been a learning experience, but they knew going in to expect delays, John said. The restaurant was originally slated to open May 20.

Kathy said that was the hardest part for her.

"Just getting the building built and ready so we could get our team in to train," she said. "But I guess it's like building a house, glitches happen."

One of the most exciting days for them was May 25. That was the day the couples brought in all of their new employees for the grand tour.

They also went over Culver's mission – to make sure every customer leaves happy, Kathy said.

Learning the ropes

On Monday, the crews watched videos and for the next four days the crews trained during what will be their normal morning, mid-day or late shift.

Culver's has a video for everything, from proper hand-washing techniques to dealing with cleaning chemicals to food prep and register tending, Kathy Elam said.

"If a crew member is in doubt, there's a video and there's a sheet," she said. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We're following whatever Culver's tells us to do."

On Thursday, the morning crew was busy wiping down tables and booths, learning the register and preparing food for fellow workers who were playing the role of customers.

The Elams were elated; all of their employees seemed to be excited and happy to be at work.

"We hire for personality and we train for success," Kathy said. "John can teach people how to cook and use the register, but he can't teach you personality. The Culver's culture is very different and if you're stone-faced and you can't crack a smile we can't use you."

Most of their employees live in Green Valley and Sahuarita, although a few live in Rio Rico. They range in age from 16 to in the 70s.

New employees

Lawrence Dickens, 68, bought a house within walking distance of the restaurant in October. He lost his last job as an auto parts delivery man six years ago, and recently decided to re-enter the workforce.

His interview with the Elams was pleasant, he said. They made him feel comfortable. He's hoping to work full-time as a porter.

Green Valley resident Mary Hale, 75, applied at Culver's because she was tired of sitting at home. A bus driver for 37 years, Hale will be greeting customers and running food to their tables.

The last time she worked in the food industry she was in her 20s. Training week has been quite an experience, she said.

"It's been hectic and there's a lot to learn, but I'll learn it," she said.

The Elams are "beautiful" people, Hale said.

"I hope the very, very best for them," she said.

Elizabeth Kupris, 19, worked for a fast food restaurant a couple of years ago, but she senses Culver's will be a much better place to work.

"I like the way (the Elams) say they are going to work with us and they're going to do whatever they need to to get the job done," she said. "They're going to treat us like a family."

While she's a little nervous about Monday's opening, she's also looking forward to it.

"Since we've been practicing, I feel like we've got this," Kupris said.

The Elams said Culver's drills into their franchise owners they want them to be active participants; they don't want them to simply hand over the reins to their managers.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to get it done, whether that's picking up trash or running food," Elam said.

It's simple, Kathy said. It all relates back to their motto. If their staff isn't happy, their guests won't be happy.

"We're hoping to have a great first week," Kathy said. "We're hoping that all of those people who said they were excited we were coming show up."

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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