White Castle (restaurant)
September 13, 1921|
Wichita, Kansas, U.S.
|Headquarters||Columbus, Ohio, United States|
|Lisa Ingram (CEO)|
White Castle is an American regional hamburger restaurant chain in the Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic United States, generally credited as the first fast-food chain in the United States. It is known for its small, square hamburgers. Sometimes referred to as "sliders", the burgers were priced at five cents until the 1940s, and remained at ten cents for years thereafter. For several years, when the original burgers sold for five cents, White Castle periodically ran promotional ads in local newspapers which contained coupons offering five burgers for ten cents, takeout only.
On January 14, 2014, Time labelled the White Castle slider the most influential burger of all time.
White Castle was founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. The original location was the NW corner of First and Main. Cook Walt A. Anderson partnered with insurance man Edgar Waldo "Billy" A. Ingram to make White Castle into a chain of restaurants and market the brand and its distinctive product. At the time, Americans were hesitant to eat ground beef after Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle had publicized the poor sanitation practices of the meat packing industry. The founders set out to change the public's perception of the cleanliness of the industry. To invoke a feeling of cleanliness, their restaurants were small buildings with white porcelain enamel on steel exteriors, stainless steel interiors, and employees outfitted with spotless uniforms. Their first restaurants in Wichita, Kansas, were a success, and the company branched out into other Midwestern markets, starting in 1922 with El Dorado, Kansas. White Castle Building No. 8, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, originally built in 1936 and remodeled (photo, right), was an example of the chain's prefabricated porcelain buildings. The building measured 28 feet (8.5 m) by 28 feet (8.5 m) and was made to resemble the Chicago Water Tower, with octagonal buttresses, crenelated towers, and a parapet wall.
The success of White Castle led to numerous imitators. Restaurants copied the distinctive architecture of White Castle buildings, as well as created confusion for consumers by using a similar name. The first of these imitators in Wichita was Little Kastle. Many competitors created their names with a play on the White Castle name. Some restaurant chains just replaced the word "Castle" with their own word (Cabin, Cap, Clock, Crescent, Diamond, Dome, Fortress, Grille, House, Hut, Kitchen, Knight, Log, Manna, Mill, Palace, Plaza, Shop, Spot, Tavern, Tower, Turret, Wonder), while others chose to replace "White" with another (Blue, King's, Little, Magic, Modern, Prince's, Red, Royal, Silver). Some of the other imitators included Castle Blanca, Blue Beacon, Blue Bell, Blue Tower, Red Barn, Red Lantern and Klover Kastle. Despite all the competition, none of the competitors were able to match the success of White Castle.
Anderson is credited with invention of the hamburger bun as well as "the kitchen as assembly line, and the cook as infinitely replaceable technician," hence giving rise to the modern fast-food phenomenon. Due to White Castle's innovation of having chain-wide standardized methods, customers could be sure that they would receive the same product and service in every White Castle restaurant. As Henry Ford did for car manufacturing, Anderson and Ingram did for the making of burgers.
Anderson developed an efficient method for cooking hamburgers, using freshly ground beef and fresh onions. The ground beef was formed into balls by machine, 18 to a pound, or 40 per kilogram. The balls were placed upon a hot grill and topped with a handful of fresh, thinly shredded onion. Then they were flipped so that the onion was under the ball. The ball was then squashed down, turning the ball into a very thin patty. The bottom of the bun was then placed atop the cooking patty with the other half of the bun on top of that so that the juices and steam from the beef and the onion would permeate the bun. After grilling, a slice of dill pickle was inserted before serving. Management decreed that any condiments, such as ketchup or mustard, were to be added by the customer. Anderson's method is not in use by the chain today, having changed when the company switched from using fresh beef and fresh onion to small, frozen square patties (originally supplied by Swift & Company) which are cooked atop a bed of rehydrated onions laid out on a grill. The heat and steam rise up from the grill, through the onions. In 1951, five holes in the patty were added to facilitate quick and thorough cooking. The very thin patties are not flipped throughout this process.
Since fast food was unknown in the United States at White Castle's founding, there was no infrastructure to support the business, as is common with today's fast-food restaurants. The company established centralized bakeries, meat supply plants, and warehouses to supply itself. It was said that the only thing they did not do themselves was raise the cows and grow their own wheat. Ingram developed a machine to create previously unheard of paper hats. In 1932, Ingram set up a subsidiary, Paperlynen, to make these hats and other paper products used in his restaurants as well as for many other purposes. At the time, White Castle's distribution stretched from Wichita to New York. Ingram decided the central office should be in the center of the distribution area. To accommodate this, in 1936 the central office was moved to Columbus, Ohio. In the same year, Ingram decided to close all of the restaurants in the two smallest-profit markets (Wichita and Omaha). In 1955, Paperlynen produced over 42 million paper hats worldwide with more than 25,000 different inscriptions. White Castle also created a subsidiary in 1934 named Porcelain Steel Buildings that manufactured movable, prefabricated, steel frame structures with porcelain enamel interior and exterior panels that could be assembled at any of its restaurant sites. This is the first known use of this material in a building design.
The company also began publishing its own internal employee magazine, the White Castle Official House Organ, circa November 1925 (it was originally named The Hot Hamburger). The bulk of the material was contributed by company personnel, and consisted mostly of letters and photographs of workers, promotional announcements, 25-year milestones, retirements, and similar items of interest arranged by geographic area. "Employees could... read about the progress and innovations made by those in other areas which made everyone aware of the entire system's direction and condition." The White Castle Official House Organ was published quarterly at least through the early 1980s, and at some point was renamed The Slider Times. The Ohio Historical Society houses an extensive archive of White Castle System, Inc. records from 1921–1991, including issues dating from 1927 to 1970 of the White Castle Official House Organ.
In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, and the following year the company moved its corporate headquarters to Columbus, Ohio. Co-founder Billy Ingram was followed as head of the firm by his son E. W. Ingram, Jr. and grandson E. W. Ingram, III.
In 1959, White Castle expanded into new markets for the first time since the 1920s. Billy Ingram, who had retired to Miami in 1958, built three White Castle restaurants there. The company closed the Florida operations in 1967 due to inefficient supply distribution.
Throughout its existence, White Castle has been a private company and relied on company-owned stores. It remains privately held today, and its restaurants, all in the U.S., are all company owned; none are franchised.
In concurrence with its 80th anniversary in 2001, White Castle started its Cravers' Hall of Fame. "Cravers" are inducted annually based on stories written about them by another person or that the particular Craver submits for consideration. Between five and ten stories have been chosen each year, with a grand total of 64 stories selected through the 2007 induction class. This represents less than 1% of the total stories submitted since the inception of the Cravers' Hall of Fame, an indication of the exclusivity of the honor.
Starting in 2011, the Long Island White Castle has become a frequent setting for challenges on the show Impractical Jokers, during which the contestants will pose as cashiers, drive thru workers, and janitors.
The Ingram family's steadfast refusal to franchise or take on debt throughout the company's existence has kept the chain relatively small, with a more discontinuous geography than its principal competitors. There are over 420 White Castle outlets, all in the United States and predominantly in the Midwest, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The exception is a significant smattering of outlets in the New York metropolitan region and one location in Nevada. By comparison, there are over 36,000 McDonald's locations globally, with approximately 14,000 of those in the United States. The chain does, however, sell frozen sliders at supermarkets nationwide, with availability varying by chain. Some locations are also cobranded with Church's Chicken.
Current White Castle markets include Chicago; Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton; Detroit; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Louisville; Minneapolis–St. Paul; Nashville; New York City/New Jersey; and St. Louis. Louisville and Columbus also house bulk manufacturing (grocery store sales, meat and bun production) divisions. Company HQ and the Porcelain Steel Buildings (PSB) division are in central Columbus, Ohio. White Castle exited the Cleveland and Akron markets in Ohio effective December 25, 2014.
The first White Castle in the far western United States opened at the Casino Royale Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip on January 27, 2015. This was the first expansion for White Castle into a different state in 56 years. On the first day of business, demand for food was so great that the restaurant had to temporarily close for two hours to restock. White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson said that the store sold 4,000 sliders per hour in its first 12 hours. He was not aware of any similar closing because of demand in White Castle's 94-year history.
In December 2015, White Castle announced that chief executive officer (CEO) E.W. “Bill” Ingram III would be stepping down at the end of the year, but continue to be chairman of the board. His daughter, Lisa Ingram, then became the fourth CEO of the company.
White Castle also markets its sandwiches in 30-hamburger boxes, called a Crave Case. The figure of 30 burgers represents the number that can be produced on one of its standard grills at the same time. A "Crave Crate" is also offered, with the contents being 100 burgers.
In 2003, White Castle unveiled a new logo, but has been promoting the slogan "What You Crave" since 1994.
The breakfast menu is available 24 hours. Some stores have attempted to boost overnight sales and start breakfast service as early as midnight. The regular menu is available 24 hours a day. However, some restaurants have started closing at 1:00 AM on weeknights and only staying open all night on Friday and Saturday.
Although White Castle originated in Wichita, Kansas, the city has not had a branch since 1938, nor is there a White Castle restaurant in the entire state of Kansas. White Castle is one of the few restaurant chains that does not have a location in its original city. White Castle is also unusual in that their store locations include a region that is essentially a significant "exclave" to its primary area. It has many stores in metropolitan New York City, though the next nearest location outside the metropolitan area is located hundreds of miles away in the Midwest.
Countries formerly with White Castle
- White Tower
- White Castle Building No. 8 – A historic White Castle located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- Little Tavern
- List of hamburger restaurants
- Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
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