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White Castle continues to push the envelope even as it honors a century of tradition

Meet NRN’s first Brand Icon honoree

 

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It’s a tale as old as time: Two buddies are up late, enjoying some recreational activities, when cravings suddenly strike. An idea emerges to score some munchies at one very particular place, and one very particular place only. They set out on their quest. Hijinks ensue. A friendship is tested and validated.

It’s a very silly story, the subject of a college reunion conversation or wedding toast. It’s also the plot for the 2004 film “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” a stoner buddy comedy in which two friends spend a night making a pilgrimage to (where else?) White Castle.

Yet silly as it is, there’s something to the narrative that is so perfectly, well, White Castle about it. There’s the crave. There’s the commitment. There’s the good-humored premise that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And there’s the fact that at its core it’s really a story about people and relationships.

One-hundred-and-one years after making its debut in Wichita, Kan., slider chain White Castle continues to motivate millions of fans around the country to satisfy their craving, no matter the obstacles in their way. It’s never wavered from its 2-inch-by-2-inch steamed sliders and yet doesn’t stash its recipe away under lock and key or thumb its nose at the competition. It has an air of affability, going so far as to endorse and support goofy stoner buddy comedies in which it is a main character.

“We’re always willing to take some cues from our customers to not take ourselves too seriously,” said Lisa Ingram, the company’s fourth CEO and great-granddaughter of founder E.W. “Billy” Ingram.

“Even though we're 101 years old,” she said, “we want to be nimble and we want to be relevant with the next generation.”

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A century-long experiment

Depending on how you define it, White Castle is the oldest fast-food chain in the U.S. Sure, Nathan’s Famous and A&W show up in the history books a few years earlier, but it was Billy Ingram who, in 1921, spent $700 to open the first bona fide quick-service restaurant that quickly scaled into a multiunit staple. (White Castle itself claims to be the first fast-food hamburger chain in the world and inventor of the carry-out model.)

According to his great-granddaughter, Ingram’s friends at the time called it a “wild experiment.” But in one century that experiment has become a half-billion-dollar restaurant business with roughly 360 locations in 13 states (according to NRN’s 2022 Top 500), plus a robust retail business serving frozen sliders in all 50 states. The company has roughly 10,000 employees and even owns eight manufacturing facilities where it produces its own meat, buns and retail products.

That century has been rich in company landmarks — enough stories and stats to fill a timeline that climbs three floors’ worth of stairwell at its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters. But while company milestones have come and gone, one thing has remained constant: the Ingram family. Billy Ingram passed stewardship of White Castle along to his son E.W. Ingram Jr., who passed it on to E.W. “Bill” Ingram III, who served for over 40 years before his daughter Lisa Ingram took over in 2015. That fourth generation of leadership today includes seven other extended family members in various executive roles, including chief people office John Kelley and vice president of manufacturing Dave Rife.

“We want to be a family-owned company for generations to come,” Lisa Ingram said. “I really support that and I'm excited about that, and we continue every day to focus on how we can make it a great place to work for all of the other families that work for White Castle.”

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Indeed, while keeping the business in the Ingram family has been good for consistency in strategy, it’s been particularly helpful in building a family-like culture that permeates everything White Castle does. The ethos of treating all 10,000 team members like part of the family is even baked into the company’s core values (“family inclusive, moment motivated, results driven, and continuous crave”).

“When we say it’s a family business, yes it’s a family-owned business, but you often find family connections among team members because they like that environment and bring folks in,” said Anthony Joseph, chief administrative officer and general counsel for White Castle. “And so we find in those cases that people thought they were just looking for a job, but then they found somewhere that really became a home and part of their lives.”

White Castle’s efforts to create a family environment go beyond words in a value statement. Chief people officer Kelley points out that the company has offered pensions and health care since the 1920s, and continues to offer its team members health insurance, life insurance, disability coverage, a 401k retirement savings plan, profit sharing based on compensation, tuition reimbursement, paid time off and an employee assistance program that supports team members through difficult personal circumstances.

To accomplish all this while selling $1 sliders, White Castle leans on its historical foundation. The company’s new headquarters, opened in 2019, sits on 18 acres just outside of downtown Columbus, a plot of land that the company has owned since Ingram the original relocated the company from Wichita in 1934. White Castle built another office and five apartment buildings on the plot and today uses the proceeds from those investments to support employee benefit plans.

To understand just how much White Castle’s commitment to its employees pays dividends, look no further than the company’s 25-Year Club, a prestigious recognition for anyone who spends a quarter-century with the organization. Every year, White Castle inducts dozens of employees into the Club at a special ceremony hosted at headquarters. On top of the all-expenses paid trip to Columbus, new members are given a gold watch to recognize the achievement.

Even as hiring and retention remain challenges for White Castle, just as they are for any restaurant company today, the brand sees about 3-4% turnover among its general managers.

“We have tremendous retention among our general managers, and of course that’s one of the key positions in the organization,” Joseph said. “Our tenure there is well over 10 years. [It’s] a very diverse group, mostly women, mostly people of color. And so those are opportunities that frankly you don't get in a lot of other businesses.”

White Castle likes to describe its employment opportunities as being “a great first job, a great second chance and a great third act,” Kelley said. But with 2,206 people having been inducted into the 25-Year-Club in its history, it’s evident that White Castle is just as much a lifelong career opportunity for its team members.

And that’s especially true of the Ingram family: A fifth generation with about 30 members is on the cusp of making its debut.

The fun, the offbeat, the eccentric

Jamie Richardson, White Castle’s vice president of marketing and public relations, laughs as he shares the story of how “Harold & Kumar” came to be. Producers had approached the company for its sign-off on the project and sent Richardson the script. Fairly new to the company, he nervously took the idea to then-CEO Bill Ingram in his office at the old headquarters.

Ingram asked Richardson if the movie would slander White Castle’s people in any way. Assured it wouldn’t, Ingram gave his blessing.

It’s a story that illustrates not only White Castle’s commitment to its people — along with its sliders, really the company’s only sacred cow — but also its willingness to embrace the fun, the offbeat, the eccentric.

White Castle’s new headquarters reflects that light-hearted nature. The first thing one sees upon entering the front doors is a slide twisting its way down from the second floor, which Kelley said is meant to honor White Castle’s frozen-food manufacturing facilities, where finished sliders are sent down a small metal slide. The lobby also features a giant wooden throne, which has Latin phrases etched into each arm (translating to “I crave, therefore I am” and “hot steamy buns”). A wooden scepter marked with notable company achievements stands beside the throne; Richardson said it travels to each store opening and is “one of our most revered relics here in the Castle.”

This whimsical nature shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to White Castle for the last half-century or so. After all, this is the company that started taking reservations for a table-service experience in its dining rooms for Valentine’s Day way back in 1991. It’s the same company that, even before “Harold & Kumar,” showed up in pop-cultural icons like the film “Saturday Night Fever” and the Beastie Boys album “Licensed to Ill.”

Simply put, White Castle doesn’t take itself too seriously. And as chief marketing officer, Lynn Blashford is charged with translating that attitude into a cohesive marketing strategy.

Her goal? Convert the White Castle of the zeitgeist into real dollars and cents.

“We have a high brand awareness, so if you say the name White Castle, people know it. But because [we don’t have as] many locations as some of the bigger brands, people may be curious and they just don't get around to coming and visit us,” Blashford said, noting that a particular challenge is convincing people that White Castle isn’t just a destination for late-night munchies. “So we’ve really got to look at, what’s the campaign going to do that motivates somebody to come into the Castle to order or to shop the freezer aisle?”

Merchandise has become a popular way to accomplish that. The company has rolled out everything from scented candles to gravy boats to branded Puma shoes and other apparel, much of which is available on White Castle’s House of Crave online store. It’s even partnered with fashion icon Telfar Clemens, who’s been enlisted to design team member uniforms.

Increasingly, the brand is embedding its irreverent attitude in the digital sphere, capturing the attention of younger customers on TikTok, Instagram and beyond.

“I think social and digital has opened up an environment to be able to go a little edgier in certain places,” Blashford said. “A family or generations that grew up with the brand and don't think of it that way might not associate the brand with that kind of behavior.”

Last year, White Castle celebrated its 100th anniversary by setting up an account on OnlyFans; instead of hosting the adult content that the site is known for, it shared slider recipes. It also last year released a special-edition NFT (nonfungible token), partnering with digital artist Che-Yu Wu on 5,000 “Sliderverse” NFTs that it sold to fans, donating a portion of the proceeds to front-line employees and its Team Member Scholarship Fund.

The collectible nature of the NFT was tailored perfectly for White Castle’s loyalists, a.k.a. the Cravers, who Blashford said are eager to wear their brand support on their sleeves (hence the merchandise). With a century of business in the books, White Castle has developed a fervent following unmatched in the restaurant industry — so much so that the company instituted a Cravers Hall of Fame in 2001. It accepts around 10 members per year out of hundreds who submit stories for consideration, and hosts an induction ceremony at headquarters.

“We like to say that it’s harder to get into the Cravers Hall of Fame than it is to get into Harvard,” Ingram said. And just like Harvard, it issues honorary membership: Celebrities such as Alice Cooper, the Beastie Boys and hip-hop artist Fat Joe have been given the status “Craver in Extremis.”

Ingram recalls the story of a recent Hall of Fame inductee who lives in Los Angeles but flies to the closest Castle in Las Vegas to purchase a couple Crave Cases — holding 30 sliders each — to return home with. The same loyalist celebrated his induction into the Hall of Fame by commissioning a custom motorcycle called the Crave Cruiser, which boasted spokes that looked like crinkle-cut fries and saddle bags that could perfectly fit a Crave Case.

“It’s just a beautiful homage to White Castle that he did all on his own,” she said. “And so it's really fun to get to interact with those Cravers that love the brand and continue to want to celebrate with us in fun ways.”

A modern-day sensibility

For a company that has been around since before the Great Depression, White Castle has changed its core business model very little. And some of its most signature innovations took decades to appear; it wasn’t until 1947 that White Castle incorporated its patented five holes in the slider patties (which helps steam the slider more efficiently), while it was 1962 before the brand added a slice of cheese to the slider for the first time and 1987 before it launched its frozen-food division. 

But White Castle isn’t stuck in the past. Each of its executives recognize the need for the brand to balance its legacy with a modern-day sensibility. In other words, they know innovation is still key to driving customers to its Castles.

For its part, menu innovation has been much more prevalent in the past few decades. The company has rolled out a Breakfast Slider, a Chicken & Waffle Slider and a Crispy Chicken Breast Slider, to name a few. One of its latest creations was the 1921 Slider, available in three varieties, that pays homage to the original menu offering served in the Wichita days.

When White Castle launched the Impossible Slider back in 2018, it was among the first major restaurant brands to introduce the plant-based product.

“We got a lot of press because it was like, ‘Why is White Castle doing this?’” Blashford said. “It didn’t make any sense to people, but I’d say that’s also part of our personality and what we strive for in marketing, is to kind of get that head turn. It’s to have people go, ‘What are they doing?’”

Today, innovation is especially extending to White Castle’s operations. With the very nature of restaurants changing along with the advent of omnichannel service opportunities and high-tech enhancements, the company is evolving its operational model to accommodate.

Jeff Carper spent nearly 30 years at Krystal and Sonic before joining White Castle in 2014 as chief operating officer. He said his first challenge was to get his team to move at a faster pace with innovation than they were used to and to not be “drinking our own Kool-Aid.” He had to demonstrate that they were “behind the eight-ball on a few things.”

“That’s when you come in from this outside vision to say, ‘Well, why do you do it that way? Have you thought about trying this? Have you thought about taking two off at a time instead of one off at a time? Can you add a step in there to help move it along without ripping the thing apart and starting from scratch?’” he said.

Two significant ways that White Castle is pushing its operation into the future is with robotics and artificial intelligence. The brand partnered with Miso Robotics to incorporate its Flippy 2 robot at the frying station, which automates the frying process and uses less space than a traditional station with an employee. Flippy 2 is currently installed in three locations, with plans to expand that to hundreds of Castles.  

Then there’s Julia, White Castle’s drive-thru ordering system that leverages license plate recognition and a digital voice assistant powered by AI to automate the outdoor lane. Carper said drive thru has become about 80% of White Castle’s business post-pandemic, and a tool like Julia — which being tested in one White Castle location — helps to improve not only the efficiency of the drive-thru operation, but also the hospitality.

“Instead of having a team member talk to the customer, ring in the order [and] repeat the order back, now I can take that team member and move them over to a customer-facing position where now I can engage that customer at the window,” Carper said. “I can engage them more, as opposed to this person trying to do three different things.”

Ingram similarly stresses that the new technologies in the back of the house aren’t intended to replace anybody, but rather to deploy them more strategically and make their working experience more enjoyable.

“If you think about those types of technologies that can help us take orders, help us make orders and help us deliver orders to the customers, those are the ones that we're interested in exploring, and we've been in all of those in some form or fashion,” Ingram said.

Slow and steady

While the timeline in White Castle HQ’s stairwell climbs three floors, the building itself is five stories — plenty of stairwell yet to be filled. With the fifth generation of leaders on the verge of joining the business, and with the brand now firmly entrenched in the habits and customs of Gen Z, White Castle is plotting its reign for the future — as Blashford noted, “the longevity and the vitality of the brand is all about today and tomorrow.”

For most companies with the kind of brand equity that White Castle enjoys, that might include a plan for rapid expansion. But White Castle, which has been around longer than all other quick-service burger joints and yet has only a fraction of the locations, isn’t interested. It doesn’t franchise, and it’s been known historically to grow without any debt — inherently keeping its growth pace slow and steady.

Still, the growth it has enjoyed has been monumental. When it arrived in its latest three markets — Vegas, Phoenix and Orlando — it opened to six-hour-long lines and served thousands of sliders per hour.

Ingram said the growth in those markets was encouraging and that the company would continue to invest in those geographies. But she also pointed out that growth isn’t just a matter of unit count; it includes everything from the manufacturing business to the connection with employees.

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“Obviously we want to grow, but we want to do it in a way that’s purposeful, that is focused on the long term and that allows us to be able to control the interaction that we have with our customers and create a great working environment for our team members,” Ingram said.

For Carper, the pace of growth provides an ideal opportunity for White Castle to continue to learn, adapt and evolve, to test the operational innovations that seem to shake up the industry on a daily basis. As he watches other restaurant concepts shrink their footprints and incorporate more modern, tech-friendly experiences, he’s constantly on the watch for what might work for White Castle.

“We’re starting the work on that now, some of the design thoughts, some of the potential changes. Again, what does our ideal footprint look like? … We’re not looking to be on every street corner,” he said. “So as a family-owned business, we take the opportunity to really take a little longer approach and say we've got time to really get our hands wrapped around it before we get out and build 10 locations.”

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Carper isn’t one of the Ingram family members, but his passion for getting it right is evident. White Castle means something more than the sliders, more than the attitude, more than the Cravers. It’s a family affair, from the leadership team to the front-line employees to the guests who grew up ordering sacks of sliders with their grandparents.

As Kelley, the chief people officer and cousin to CEO Ingram, notes, that creates a responsibility to honor the White Castle of the past 101 years and the White Castle of tomorrow.

“My great-grandfather started it; my grandfather built it; my uncle built it. Now it's our turn,” he said. “We've got the fifth generation coming up that are expressing interest in being here. So it’s about figuring out … how can we leave this better the way every generation before [us] has left it better?”

Contact Sam Oches at [email protected] 

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