White Castle Hamburgers: The Story

White Castle holds the title of being the first fast-food restaurant in the world. Their original hamburger eatery opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921. The restaurant was the start of what has become a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. (White Castle predated McDonald’s by many years. The first food stand operated by the McDonald family did not open until 1937.)

White Castle, Bloomington, Indiana, istock
White Castle, Bloomington, Indiana

White Castle was also the first fast-food restaurant to sell over a billion burgers. They passed this milestone in 1961, far in advance of their competitors.

White Castle’s Beginning

Walt Anderson (1880-1963) was the cook behind the counter of the earliest White Castle restaurant. Anderson had been running food stands in Wichita since 1916 when he opened his first diner in a converted streetcar.

White Castle

As he developed his preparation methods, he found that starting with a mound of fresh beef and then pressing it into a flat square and poking five well-placed holes in the meat meant that he could cook the burger thoroughly without having to flip it. He soon found that cooking the patty on a bed of chopped onions that were on the grill with the bun placed on top permitted all of the flavors to permeate the bun.

Anderson did well enough at his first location that he added a second and third. When scouting locations, he worked with a helpful real estate agent, Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram (1880-1966). As the two men got to know each other, they decided to team up on what would be a fourth restaurant for Anderson.

Looking for Growth

Anderson’s operations were doing well, but he shared with Ingram the fact that there was still resistance by some to eating ground beef because of unsanitary aspects of the meat business that were exposed by Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle (1906). To counter this, Ingram suggested a new style of restaurant.

Drawing inspiration from the castle-like look of the water pumping station in downtown Chicago, the two men decided to call the new restaurant “White Castle” and make the building look like a small white castle. Porcelain was used on the interior to emphasize a sparkling clean all-white restaurant. The kitchen was also viewable by the public to reassure them that the food was prepared under highly sanitary conditions.

When the first White Castle opened, the burgers were prepared with Anderson’s signature cooking method, and they were priced at a nickel a burger. The ads encouraged people to “buy them by the sack.”

In 1923, they expanded with a location in Omaha. Before 1930, they had branched into twelve major cities in the Midwest as well as New York and New Jersey. By1924, they incorporated as the White Castle System of Eating Houses Corporation.

In 1933 Ingram bought out Anderson and moved the headquarters to Columbus, Ohio to be more centrally located to the restaurants he was building.

White Castle: Selling Hamburgers

Ingram seemed to have a “marketing gene” as he continually implemented new ways to market White Castle. In the first few years when there was still public sentiment that ground beef wasn’t healthy, Ingram hired a nutritional expert to speak to women’s groups about the health benefits of hamburger.

Despite that, there were still many who were prepared to speak out against ground beef. One author wrote: “The hamburger habit is just about as safe as walking in a garden while the arsenic spray is being applied, and about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun.”

burgers and sliders
burgers and sliders

Ingram had an answer in the form of an idea for a “scientific experiment.” Many years before the movie, Super Size Me (2004), Ingram persuaded biochemist Jesse McClendon to conduct a scientific experiment. McClendon planned that a subject would eat only White Castle hamburgers and water for thirteen weeks. The volunteer chosen was a medical student at the University Minnesota. The fellow was very excited at the beginning of the experiment and often consumed ten burgers at a sitting. While he tired of the sameness of the diet, he kept up with it for the thirteen weeks, documenting all he ate in a diary. At the conclusion of the period, he was pronounced in good health. His consumption had averaged 20-24 burgers per day.

Ingram promoted the results of the study in ads, and some industry leaders felt this campaign resulted in a better view of hamburgers overall.

White Castle Introduced Restaurant Coupons

The company pioneered the first use of the restaurant newspaper coupons. In information provided by the School of Business at Emporia State University, the first coupon ran in a paper in St. Louis on June 3, 1932. It offered a carryout order of five hamburgers for ten cents. (Hamburgers then were a nickel so that was a great offer; probably anything that could boost sales during the Depression was a help.) The coupon was overwhelmingly successful and helped expand the White Castle audience. It also introduced a new type of marketing for the restaurant industry.

Fifty years later, the company was still promotion-minded and accepted a long distance carry-out order from soldiers in Beirut. The company flew over a generous supply of frozen White Castle sliders.

More Innovations

White Castle was the first to apply the assembly line method to the work going on in the kitchen. Walt Anderson, the original cook, realized the restaurants needed a uniform system of burger-making so that there was standardization across the chain. He also prepared a manual for food preparation and guidelines for employee cleanliness and appearance.

At the time White Castle was expanding, there were also no business models for how to support a group of chain restaurants. Ingram began establishing centralized bakeries, meat supply plants, and warehouses. In 1932 Ingram also established a subsidiary, Paperlynen, to make hats for the kitchen workers as well as the other paper supplies used by the restaurants. Thiswas also an innovation for the restaurant trade. Because of this, Paperlynen was able to supply restaurants worldwide. In 1955 alone, Paperlynen produced over 42 million paper hats for many different companies.

Building new restaurants quickly also became of paramount importance. In 1934 Ingram established Porcelain Steel Buildings to prefabricate the sections of the buildings so the pieces could be trucked into a location and put up quickly.

White Castle Marketing

The entire hamburger industry owes White Castle a “thanks” for creating National Hamburger Month in 1992. Every year when the month of May rolls around, places that sell hamburgers come up with new promotions to entice the public.

White Castle bag containers

For White Castle’s 80th anniversary in 2001 they began the Cravers’ Hall of Fame. Cravers are inducted annually based on stories submitted by customers that demonstrate “brand loyalty, creative presentation, originality and magnitude of the crave.” The Hall of Fame continues to attract tens of thousands of entries each year.

About fifteen years ago, White Castle management was approached by Hollywood producers who asked their cooperation in filming Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). Never having been approached for something like this, it took them awhile to decide whether or not to let White Castle become a part of the movie and be the late-night destination for a couple of stoners. Ultimately they decided to give it a try; the move was a huge hit and is still a favorite among many young people. With it, White Castle took on cult status.

There are now 420 White Castle restaurants. The business continues to resist franchising though they do sell White Castle frozen products in grocery stores. The restaurants are all owned by the privately-held White Castle Management Company. This business is controlled by descendants of Billy Ingram.

To read about another successful food business, read about Tom Carvel: King of Soft-Serve.

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21 thoughts on “White Castle Hamburgers: The Story”

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  7. Tell me again why they are changing their name,
    I see no racist remarks in the fact it is called White Castle.

  8. I see there is something about that on a website. I believe it’s a joke. White Castle is still going to be White Castle. I believe it was called that because they were building the pre-fab forms for the building out of a white porcelain-like substance. Thanks for posting.

  9. I am very confused, the White Castle website states Billy Ingram as the founder. He is not listed as a real estate agent that came to prominence as the real estate agent helping Walt Anderson. Walt Anderson is not even mentioned as the first cook.

  10. Lisa, Thank you for bringing to my attention the current information on the White Castle website. I went back through my sources, and my article is accurate. I believe what happened with the White Castle website was “human nature.” While Walt Anderson got the hamburger stands going, the fact that he was ready to sell to Ingram in 1933 explains a lot. For whatever reason, Anderson was ready to go on to other things. Ingram–followed by his family–were deeply invested financially and emotionally in building the White Castle chain. They “simplified” the company history by omitting Anderson. It would have been ideal if they had acknowledged their partnership in the beginning, but it’s easy to see why they didn’t. With full ownership since 1933, it has probably felt like their company for a very long time.
    I appreciate the question… On and you might feel better by reading what the Kansas Historical Society says about Walt Anderson: https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/walter-anderson/17828 Anderson may have had other interests he wanted to pursue.

  11. I don’t know what has happened to the delicious slider, for the past couple of times they just taste different, what happened to that great onion and salty taste they used to have? I thought it was just me, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about the way they taste now as apposed to how they used to taste. Please, what ever you did different, go back to what you used to do.

  12. Thank you for posting! I hope other people will weigh in on what they think of the current flavor.

  13. harold & kumar turned into a movie, would eat at white castle & use those porcelain white bathrooms. when i think of one of those juicy burgers it just moves me in a way my mother never could. i have dreams of it but i’ve never had one at my fingertips. with the grease just dripping down my chin i know it’ll make me a better man to my wife & children + a family cat.

  14. Ha! Love that….well you now have a travel goal. Pack up the family when you can and make it a road trip! (I know gas is expensive but maybe there is a White Castle near you?)

    We needed to visit my hometown 2 weeks ago….I got my wish of returning to Dairy Queen. I usually get a cup not a cone but for this occasion I got a cone and yep, ice cream dripped all over me! It was worth it… have a good weekend.

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