The White Castle Story: The Birth Of Fast Food & The Burger Revolution

Image courtesy of fRyan

Back in 1921, when Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram and Walter Anderson imagined what their legacy would ultimately be, they probably didn’t believe that the country’s first fast food burger chain would become the subject of a movie about two pot-smoking pals caught up in a raunchy quest for a sack of small, square White Castle burgers.

White Castle may have survived in the fast food industry for nearly 100 years, but the nation’s original burger chain was never even supposed to be. In fact, co-founder Billy Ingram – whose family still manages the company – had planned to work in the insurance business. That is until he met the operator of three hamburger stands in Wichita, KS, in the early 1900s.

After the chance meeting with Walter Anderson, plans changed for Billy Ingram, and along the way, he and Anderson forever changed how Americans eat out.

A New Meal

Image courtesy of Courtesy of White Castle.

By all accounts, Ingram and Anderson didn’t have plans to etch their names into the history of American restaurants when they met in 1908.

According to the Columbus Business Journal, Ingram had just become a partner with an insurance company and Anderson ran three small but popular burger stands in the middle of Kansas.

And while Anderson had experience with his own hamburger business under his belt, when he and Ingram set out with $700 to open White Castle in 1921, they were fighting an uphill battle.

At that time, according to an article from Minyanville titled “The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: White Castle”, Americans weren’t yet enamored with the hamburger and often viewed the sandwich as an undesirable or even unsafe product.

To change this perception, the two men began their new restaurant venture with an immaculate-looking small building outfitted with porcelain enamel, steel exteriors, and stainless steel interiors that evoked a sense of cleanliness.

That spotless image was also expected of employees, who were required to be well groomed and outfitted in stain-free uniforms, the Columbus Business Journal reports.

In addition to trying to quell customers’ concerns by pushing the restaurant’s clean, white sterile aesthetic, Ingram and Anderson ramped up the transparency by grinding the beef in full view of the dining area. Customers could see for themselves exactly what went into making their burger patties.

And it worked. Just two years later, White Castle expanded to El Dorado, KS, and then Omaha, NE, to feed customers sacks of 5-cent small burgers (now commonly known as “sliders”), becoming the first fast food hamburger chain in the world, according to the company’s own historical account.

By the end of the decade, the company had restaurants in most major midwest cities, as well as several in the Mid-Atlantic region, including New York and New Jersey.

The White Castle System

Image courtesy of Morton Fox

As Anderson and Ingram expanded their new restaurant venture during the 1920s, the men took special care to ensure the meals customers received at each location were as uniform as possible.

To do so, they created the White Castle System. According to an article from restaurant publication Saveur, the organizational plan allowed cooks at any White Castle location to turn out near-identical small, square burgers on a rather large scale.

The burgers at each location were cooked according to the same recipe and assembly order: ground beef balls placed on a hot grill and topped with thinly shredded onions. The burgers were flipped and squashed into a thin patty. Next, the bottom bun was placed on top of the burger. Finally, a pickle and the top bun were added to complete White Castle’s increasingly popular slider.

That assembly line style – which many have compared to Henry Ford’s revolutionary auto assembly line – helped to usher in the fast food industry as we know it.

But it wasn’t just the burgers that Ingram and Anderson streamlined when they began expanding. They also opened subsidiaries to create prefabricated White Castle buildings, meaning each location looked exactly the same, creating a distinct and immediately recognizable brand.

Coupons & Burgers With Holes

Although White Castle was enjoying modest growth and business at the start of the 1930s, Ingram and Anderson continued to look for ways to attract new customers.

To further show that burgers weren’t dangerous or undignified, the company commissioned a study in 1930 that tracked the health of a college student eating White Castle sandwiches. According to a company timeline, the University of Minnesota study found that the student – who ate nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water for 13 weeks – was in “top physical health.”

The remainder of the 1930s saw several other changes for White Castle. The company moved its headquarters to Ohio, and shortly there after Ingram bought out Anderson and became the sole owner of White Castle, the Columbus Business Journal reports.

Ingram also closed the restaurants in Wichita and Omaha, two of the company’s smallest markets. To this day, the chain’s birthplace of Wichita — and the entire state of Kansas, for that matter — remains without a White Castle restaurant.

Around that same time, White Castle consolidated its prefabrication operations and its other division that made the distinctive paper hats that workers wore.

But the era of change also provided one of the company’s biggest sales boost, thanks in part to Ingram’s new marketing ploy to entice long-standing and new customers to give White Castle a try: coupons.

The company timeline reports that the coupons could be found in local newspapers and offered customers the ability to buy five hamburgers for just 10-cents each.

The start of the ’40s — and the beginning of World War II — brought more change to the company. While the restaurant had to follow suit and ration beef during the War, it recouped some business by adding hot dogs and fried eggs to the menu.

By 1947, the business was booming and long lines had formed outside locations. To cut down on the wait, the company once again revolutionized its burgers. This time by adding five holes to the patty, reportedly helping it to cook faster and become more flavorful.

Not Following Suit

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The early popularity of White Castle spawned several imitations but they rarely proved to be much competition for the real deal.

Then came the gradual emergence of McDonald’s and other chains that expanded through franchises, which allowed for faster growth and less risk for the parent company, but limits the corporate office’s ability to control every aspect of the business.

Minyanville reports that Ingram steadfastly refused to franchise his restaurant, because doing so meant he wouldn’t be able to oversee every location.

He also refused to build his company on credit or with investor money. Ingram only ever expanded when he had necessary capital on hand, according to the book Selling ‘Em By The Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food.

It’s for these reasons, that the company was quickly outpaced by other fast food restaurants and never really had the chance to grow past its regional operations in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic area.

Still, White Castle does boast the distinction of being the first fast food restaurant to sell one billion burgers, a feat reached in 1961, just two years before the much younger McDonald’s would hit that same milestone.

Beyond The Restaurant

White Castle may not have physical locations in every state like some of its fast food counterparts, yet the company’s presence is felt beyond its buildings.

Beginning in the late ’40s, customers began spreading the White Castle wealth to others by shipping burgers on dry ice, according to the company. Three decades later, White Castle took that idea and made it its own when it began flying burgers all over the country through the “Hamburgers to Fly” program.

In 1987, White Castle moved into the pre-packaged retail business when it launched a line of frozen sliders sold at grocery stores, ensuring that customers thousands of miles away from the nearest location could enjoy the small burgers.

Continuing The Legacy

Billy Ingram died in 1966, but his style of management continues at the more than 400 White Castle locations in a dozen states.

Because Ingram never franchised the restaurants or sold the company, White Castle remains privately held and family managed.

After his death, Ingram’s role was taken over by his son E.W. Ingram, Jr., whose own son E.W. Ingram, III followed suit.

The company is now led by its fourth generation of the Ingram family. The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2013, that Lisa Ingram, the great-granddaughter of Billy, had been promoted to president of the company.

Pop Culture Favorite

But it’s not just the Ingram family that keeps the small chain on consumers’ minds, pop culture has also played a part.

The restaurant has been prominently featured in several songs including those from The Smithereens and the Beastie Boys, as well as on the big screen in the movie Saturday Night Fever.

And, while the company never franchised itself, in 2004 it became the plot point for what became a small movie franchise: Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, and its two subsequent sequels, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

So whether they know it or not, Ingram and Anderson can be thanked for inspiring this hilariously profane clip that we never tire of watching:

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