White Castle

White Castle is a restaurant generally credited as the first fast food chain, 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.

White Castle was founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas by Cook Walt A. Anderson an insurance man Billy Ingram. At the time, Americans were hesitant to eat ground beef after Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel ‘The Jungle’ publicized poor sanitation practices in the meatpacking 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.

The success of White Castle led to numerous imitators. Restaurants copied the distinctive architecture of White Castle buildings (made to resemble the Chicago Water Tower, with octagonal buttresses, crenelated towers, and a parapet wall), 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, etc.), while others chose to replace ‘White’ with another word such as Blue, King’s, Little, Magic, Modern, Prince’s, Red, Royal, or Silver.

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 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. 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 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 in that era, there was little to no infrastructure to support the business. 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 their own restaurants as well as for many other purposes. They 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 White Castle restaurant site.

The company also began publishing its own internal employee magazine, the ‘White Castle Official House Organ,’ circa November 1925 (originally named ‘The Hot Hamburger’). The bulk of the material was contributed by company personnel, mostly letters and photographs of workers, promotional announcements, 25-year milestones, and retirements, etc., 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 ‘House Organ’ was published quarterly at least through the early 1980s, and at some point was renamed ‘The Slider Times.’

In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, and the following year the company moved its corporate headquarters to Columbus, Ohio. The company remains privately held and its restaurants are company-owned; they are not franchised in the United States. Co-founder Billy Ingram was followed as head of the firm by his son E. W. Ingram, Jr. and grandson E. W. Ingram, III. 

Ingram’s steadfast refusal to franchise or take on debt resulted in the chain remaining relatively small, with a very discontinuous geography compared to most chains. There are over 420 White Castle outlets, all in the United States and specifically in the Midwest and Tennessee, except for a significant discontinuous smattering of outlets in the New York metropolitan region. The chain does, however, sell frozen sliders inside supermarkets nationwide, with availability varying by chain. Some locations are also cobranded with Church’s Chicken.

One Comment to “White Castle”

  1. I’ve seen the “White Castle” frozen cheeseburgers in the market and wondered…now I know! THANK YOU!!!! :)

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