MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season, during which Christians are asked to look inward and make personal sacrifices — such as no red meat on Fridays — in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifices.

To help accommodate believers, taverns, restaurants and churches began serving “fish specials,” or “fish frys,” and nowhere in the country is this practice more prevalent than in the Midwest. And it’s a booming business.

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So when we see Craig Culver in a national ad with some “Scandahoovian” guy making fish sandwiches, it would be quite easy to poo-poo it as jumping on the “fish fry” band wagon, or some marketing scheme — until we dive a little deeper.

Meet Mike Budde. He has been a Culver’s franchise owner for 19 years.

“The biggest key to making a good piece of fish is that light, crisp breading,” Budde said. “And then we let the fillets swim in the oil.”

Budde’s knowledge of the “fish fry” tradition goes way beyond the corporate handbook.

(credit: CBS)

“Growing up in central Minnesota, Catholic, it’s what I know. Yes, fish is part of it, but it’s about fellowship and the family getting together and having a nice quality time,” Budde said.

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Looking back almost 20 years, Culver’s was new in the Minnesota area back then, but it was the Wisconsin-based company’s way of doing business that attracted this Melrose farm kid, his wife and in-laws to open a franchise in a bean field in Apple Valley.

“Found out about Culver’s, saw what it did, looked at the products and thought, ‘This is something I can believe in,'” he said.

And once you’ve tasted their fish sandwich, it will make a believer out of you, too. And like Craig Culver says in his commercials, it’s the simplicity of the recipe that helps maintain a high standard of quality throughout Culver’s 700 stores.

“Knowing Craig for so many years, who you see on TV is who he is. He’s not playing anybody, he’s just himself,” Budde said.

And the same can be said for Budde, save room for a little criticism from his son, Carter.

“He did pretty good. A little more eye contact with the camera would have been nice,” Carter said.

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Like Culver’s fish sandwich, some things will never change.

Chris Shaffer