White Castle

In 1916, J. Walter “Walt” Anderson, a short-order cook in a diner in Wichita, Kansas, purchased an old shoe repair building, which he converted into a hamburger stand. He sold his burgers for a nickel apiece, which his customers (mainly workers) could afford. At the time, hamburgers were commonly sold on the street but they did not have a particularly good reputation. The ground beef was frequently overcooked and tasteless, and everyone was worried about its composition. Anderson’s burgers were different. His secret was to make thin, 1-inch square patties that permitted quick cooking. To ensure freshness, he arranged for beef and square buns to be delivered twice a day, and sometimes more often. To make sure that customers knew what was in his hamburgers, he ground his own beef so that customers could watch him do so through glass windows. It was so successful that he opened three additional stands, all with carry-out service. Additional stands were opened and in 1920 Anderson customers proclaimed him to be the “King of the Hamburger.”
Anderson wanted to expand his operation even further, but he needed a partner with money. In 1921, he went into business with Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, a real estate and insurance man who liked what Anderson had accomplished. Ingram also believed that Anderson’s operation could be greatly improved. The new joint venture was renamed White Castle. Ingram designed a new structure, complete with turrets, that imitated the Chicago Water Tower, which was one of the few structures to survive the Chicago fire of 1871. It was a symbol of permanence, which was quite different from the image of other low-cost hamburger stands that dotted the nation at the time. The dominant color of the new outlets was white, which was intended to represent purity and cleanliness. This new design was successful and White Castle expanded to Omaha, Kansas City, and St. Louis by 1924. In 1925, the company sold more than 84,000 hamburgers.
White Castle initially served only coffee, hamburgers, Coca-Cola, and pie, but this menu expanded over the years. Employees were required to observe high standards of cleanliness and had to wear uniforms. At first, Ingram made arrangements with local butchers to produce a particular meat product. As White Castle became larger, he established meat processing plants, paper suppliers, and bun baking operations to produce consistent products.
Anderson sold his portion of the operation to Ingram, who continued to expand it, particularly in urban areas near mass transit stops across the street from large factories. As White Castle expanded in various regions, it was possible for the company to advertise over a broad area, thus increasing the sales. White Castle advertised in newspapers and through radio. It offered a single slogan for all outlets: “Sell ‘em by the sackful.”
By 1931, the company owned 131 outlets. The Depression was not a major problem. The company restructured its operation by closing unprofitable outlets and opening new operations in more profitable areas. Because it sold its products at a low price, White Castle food was a luxury that Americans with jobs could afford. The company streamlined its operations further, and hamburgers were sold at an increasing rate. The company also advertised in newspapers and included coupons for reduced prices. The company also experimented with new products, such as milk shakes, which it decided not to continue because milk shakes took so long to make and the equipment frequently broke down and was difficult for operators to fix. White Castle management also believed that milk shakes ruined customer’s appetites for hamburgers, the company’s flagship product. In 1935, White Castle sold 40 million hamburgers.
During World War II, White Castle did face serious problems due to labor shortages and the lack of meat, which was rationed during the war. Likewise, sugar was also rationed and Coca-Cola was also in short supply. Ingram sought new potential products. One was the fried egg sandwich. Eggs were fried in a metal ring and were then served on a bun, much like McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Potatoes were another product that White Castle experimented with during the war. Potatoes were inexpensive, plentiful, and were not rationed. White Castle began serving French fries, which previously had not been served much at fast food operations.
White Castle continued to sell French fries after the war, but they were discontinued because many managers believed that deep-frying in hot grease was dangerous for operators and it was difficult for operators to know when the fries were properly cooked. In the 1950s, technological improvements made it possible for French fries to be easily and safely prepared, and so they were returned to the menu. Milk shake equipment also improved during the 1950s, so White Castle resumed selling them. In 1958, they test-marketed a King Size hamburger to compete with the increasing popularity of the Bob’s Big Boy. It was not a success.
White Castle was confronted with a series of problems. Suburbs developed and highways permitted workers easy access to cities. As the number of automobiles sold skyrocketed during the 1940s and 1950s, car owners began frequenting drive-ins. Most White Castle outlets were located in urban areas and many outlets did not have parking lots. Another problem was the crime that affected inner cities; many White Castles were open 24 hours a day and were frequent targets of robbers late at night. In addition, many inner-city establishments became havens for the homeless. Many used White Castle’s restrooms to bathe in and left messes, destroying White Castle’s reputation for cleanliness. Finally, racial unrest hit the inner cities. Most Americans became weary of eating at White Castle. White Castle began to fade and by the 1960s there were only 90 White Castle outlets left.
In 1968, White Castle began a new construction program, locating many outlets in suburbs. While it could not compete with large chains such as McDonald’s or Burger King, it could compete with smaller chains. Recently, White Castle has developed new partnerships with other chains, such as Church’s Chicken, which has expanded White Castle’s operations.
The White Castle system that Ingram developed had important differences from previous hamburger operations. Its formula had five components: efficiency and economy (nickel hamburgers), limited menu, mass volume, standardization, and simplification of processes of preparing the food; prominent locations (near mass transit stops); uniform and distinctive architecture (the white castle); aggressive expansion of outlets; and pleasant settings, which were especially good places for women and children. These characteristics, somewhat altered, became the basis for each subsequent fast food chain.
White Castle changed American culture dramatically. Hamburgers became one of America’s most important foods during the 1920s, in part due to White Castle. Customer surveys indicated that they liked the taste of the hamburger, the low price, the quality of all the products served, the cleanliness of the outlets, and the convenience. That this system has survived for more than 80 years (even though throughout much of its history it was a small, family-owned business) is a credit to its model, which was duplicated by other fast food chains, such as McDonald’s. Most fast food chains today are based on variations of the White Castle system. As a result of this system, millions of fast food hamburgers are sold, not just in the United States but throughout the world.

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