White Castle has been slinging its miniature burgers for 98 years, but retains its mystery. White Castle doesn't have a movie about its founding, like McDonald’s got in 2016 with “The Founder”; it doesn't have a wisecracking Twitter account like Wendy’s, and it doesn't have Super Bowl commercials like Burger King. It doesn't even have all that many locations west of the Mississippi or south of Tennessee. What it does have is some interesting history, a huge cult following, and a stoner movie — “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” — that put it directly into the public consciousness.
IT WAS THE FIRST BURGER CHAIN
In 1921, Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram, a former insurance agent, and J. Walter Anderson, who owned several burger stands, opened the first White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, for $700. Two years later, White Castle expanded to El Dorado, Kansas, and then Omaha, Nebraska. By the end of the decade, it had locations throughout the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic (including New York and New Jersey). It was years ahead of McDonald’s and other burger chains. A&W started in 1919, but as just a root beer stand.
IT HAS NO LOCATIONS IN ITS BIRTHPLACE
ITS OWNER WAS A BURGER GENIUS
Opening White Castle may be the least of Anderson's accomplishments. Anderson made the burger joint as we know it possible byinventing the grill used to cook the burgers — and plenty of people say he also invented the burger bun itself.
IT THOUGHT OF EVERYTHING
IT'S ONLY A BIT MORE EXPENSIVE NOW
IT CREATED THE FAST FOOD PROMOTION
Those buy-in-bulk deals aren't exactly new. In the 1930s, with competition increasing, White Castle began putting coupons in newspapers that allowed customers to buy five hamburgers for just 5 cents each. Promotional items are now not only a staple of White Castle's business plan, but of the fast-food industry in general.
IT'S WHITE FOR A REASON
IT'S LOOK IS BASED ON A REAL BUILDING
White Castle founder Ingram notes that the original design of his buildings was inspired by Chicago’s Water Tower, one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. White Castle has since rewarded the city by placing nearly 20 locations within its borders alone.
IT MADE FOOD FAST
IT DOESN'T GRILL, IT STEAMS
That bed of onions has an important job: The steam from the grilled onions permeates the burgers and cooks them without exposing them to the grill directly. They can be steamed 30 at a time (the exact number of sliders in White Castle's suitcase-sized Crave Case) and get off the grill in very little time.
IT WAS ONCE 'HEALTHY'
IT ONCE HAD CLONES
IT SOLD HOT DOGS
IT POKES HOLES IN ITS BURGERS
Back in 1954, a White Castle employee in Cincinnati named Earl Howell left a note in the store's suggestion box saying putting holes in White Castle pattieswould help them cook faster. The holes helped steam permeate the patties, cooking them more evenly, distributing onion flavor more thoroughly, and eliminating the need for a flip. Howell now has a place in the Hall of Fame at White Castle headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
IT WAS A MASSIVE SUCCESS
McDonald's once had signs boasting about the number of hamburgers it's sold over the years, but stopped counting in 1994. It had sold “just” 100 million by 1958, while three years later, White Castle announced it had sold 1 billion burgers, making it the first chain to do so.
IT WAS ITS OWN WORST ENEMY
Ingram refused to franchise White Castle and wanted control over every location. He also dragged his feet on television advertising and even french fries as competitors such as McDonald's gained ground. He also refused to hire women or black people, but relented eventually. When he died in 1966, White Castle was left with a small regional footprint as McDonald's began its march to world domination.
IT NEVER FLED THE CITY
IT TRAVELED WELL
IT DOMINATES SUPERMARKET FREEZERS
In 1986, White Castle opened a grocery subsidiary and began pre-packaging sliders — bun and all — and selling them in supermarkets and grocery stores. By 2014, they were the top-selling frozen hamburger in the country. The burgers are made in the same plant as the restaurant's burger, and the only element missing is a pickle, which freezes and microwaves poorly.
IT DITCHES FRESH ONIONS FOR FROZEN BURGERS
IT'S SURPRISINGLY HEFTY
The White Castle slider has 6 grams of fat and packs in 140 calories. That gives roughly four sliders the fat and calorie content of a Big Mac. Keep that in mindwhen buying a 4,200-calorie Crave Case.
IT'S STILL FAMILY-OWNED
Ingram's passing in 1966 led to his son, E.W. Ingram Jr., taking over. E.W. Ingram III ended up taking over for his dad until 2013, when Lisa Ingram, Billy's great-granddaughter, took the reins.
IT OPERATES HUGELY POPULAR FOOD TRUCKS
In 2013, White Castle sent out trucks to cook up sliders for folks at sporting events and state fairs. That year, it prompted four-hour waits in then-White-Castle-free Las Vegas. In 2015, one such truck sold 10,000 sliders in six hours outside of Orlando, Florida, theme park Fun Spot. There's definitely demand beyond the chain's 400 or so locations.
IT KEEPS SHUTTING DOWN VEGAS
White Castle's two westernmost location are in Las Vegas, and they are beloved. When the first opened in 2015, it faced two-hour lines and had to close midday to restock. The closest White Castle to the Vegas locations is 1,500 miles away ... in Missouri.
IT WAS A BEASTIE BOYS FAVORITE
When their career was in its '80s infancy, the Beastie Boys weren't above just dropping into a Clifton, New Jersey, White Castle when they needed video filler or name dropping the chain as often as possible. Five songs on their 1986 album “Licensed to Ill” all make references to the chain. The late Adam Yauch's vegan diet during his cancer treatment put some sobering distance between the band and the hamburger chain, even if White Castle itself still shows love for the Beasties.
IT HAS OTHER FAMOUS FANS
Punk band Bouncing Souls gave White Castle credit for sustaining them through tours in the song “Here We Go.” Weird Al Yankovic lavishes White Castle burgers on his beloved in “Whatever You Like.” The Dan Orr Project reimagined the Moody Blues in “Nights In White Castle.” But it was New Jersey indie band The Smithereens that gave the chain the song that became its “Harold and Kumar” soundtrack anthem: “White Castle Blues.”
IT COULD HAVE HAD A ‘HAROLD AND KUMAR’ PARTNER
Apparently, being associated with young, professional stoners from Hoboken isn't appealing to every fast-food brand. As it turns out, the creators of 2004's “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” also approached Krispy Kreme to take part in the Neil Patrick Harris-addled epic. The chain with the doughnut conveyor ramp declined.
IT DID THE IMPOSSIBLE
Last year, White Castle boasted of becoming the first fast-food chain to embrace the plant-based, bleeding Impossible Burger throughout its entire system. Granted, it costs more than double the price of an original slider, but that seems like a small price to stick to one's environmentally friendly and health conscious ideals.
IT WASN'T NEW TO MEATLESS BURGERS
It began selling veggie patties at all of its locations back in 2014. Sure, it doesn't resemble beef or have the equivalent of blood streaming out of it, but the veggie slider was a positive step for a chain whose lone nod to vegetarians to that point was a menu of fried sides. Prior to that, the props team on the set of “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” had to create custom veggie patties for long-time vegetarian Kal Penn who played Kumar.