White Castle's original Slider sandwich hasn't changed much since co-founder Billy Ingram started his campaign to legitimize the lowly hamburger in 1921. But the Columbus company that steam-grills its small, five-holed, square burgers on a bed of onions has changed a lot.
White Castle’s original Slider sandwich hasn’t changed much since co-founder Billy Ingram started his campaign to legitimize the lowly hamburger in 1921.
But the Columbus company that steam-grills its small, five-holed, square burgers on a bed of onions has changed a lot.
Now in its fourth generation, the fast-food company sells most of its Sliders (originally priced at 5 cents) and other quirky foods at drive-through windows instead of restaurant counters. Still owned by the Ingram family, White Castle employs more than 10,000 during summer peaks (and pulls in more than $450 million a year, according to Hoover’s Inc.)
The Dispatch chatted with the company’s recently promoted president, Lisa Ingram, and her father, Bill Ingram, CEO and chairman.
Q: How do you describe the White Castle legacy?
Lisa: Iconic is the best term. It’s very well known. Even though we’re only in 12 states, we’re known across the nation. Judging by our social feeds, lots of people would love for us to put a White Castle in their towns.
It’s wonderful to have a brand that is about more than food. People always have stories for us about an experience at one of our Castles (what the Ingrams call their 400-plus restaurants).
Q: How has business changed over the years?
Bill: For one, technology has changed. My grandfather (Billy Ingram) dictated his letters to a secretary. Back when I started 40 years ago, I’d write a letter, put it in the mail and wait for someone to get it. Now, of course, we use email.
Q: How has White Castle changed?
Bill: When I started in the early 1970s, we had 120-some Castles. Most of them were tiny buildings. For a while, the restaurants got bigger and bigger. And in the last few years, they’ve gotten smaller and smaller.
Q: Why have the restaurants gotten smaller lately?
Lisa: It’s typical in our industry for 70 percent of customers to go through the drive-through, so we don’t need big restaurants anymore. Dad led through the transformation of adding drive-throughs to our buildings, most of which were built in the ’20s and ’30s.
Q: How has the food changed?
Lisa: Our product offering has changed dramatically. We used to offer just burgers and pie, right?
Bill: And coffee and Coke.
Lisa: We’ve been a customer of Coca-Cola since 1921. Now, we have chicken and fish sandwiches, and a full menu of side items. We have a great breakfast sandwich that not a lot of people know about.
Q: Tell me about your breakfast sandwich.
Lisa: It’s a fresh-cracked egg on the grill. None of our competitors have as good a breakfast sandwich as we do. You can get bacon or sausage and cheese, if you like. If you’re in Louisville, you can get bologna.
And you can choose the kind of bread — a bun, my favorite. But a lot of customers like toast.
Bill: The sausage, egg and jalapeno cheese on a bun is by far the best.
Q: I’ve noticed boxes of Sliders in the frozen section of my local grocery store. Why sell your burgers there?
Bill: The only reason we have a grocery-store product is because of the change in society. When I was visiting restaurants in the ’80s, people would tell me they put their extra hamburgers in the freezer, then reheated them in a microwave oven — new technology, at the time.
Lisa: Our hamburgers and cheeseburgers are perfectly designed for the home microwave.
Q: Do you sell any other products in grocery stores?
Lisa: Coffee. Many people love our coffee.
Q: What do you think about the cult movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle?
Bill: A funny story: I’m a big fly fisherman. I was in Argentina fishing, and my guide said, “My friends and I went to see Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. They asked me whether I thought White Castle was a real place.”
And I said, “Sure it is. You’re fly-fishing with the president of White Castle.”
Lisa: We agreed to allow the movie to use our name because it was complimentary to our team members, products and employees. Now, it’s very much a part of our cultlike brand.
Our vision statement is to feed the souls of Craver generations everywhere. We do that by creating “memorable moments.” It’s just about who we are.
Q: Do you franchise White Castles?
Bill: No. Franchising is a completely different business. We’ve never had any experience with it.
Lisa: Our brand is built around stories, experiences and fun. We want to make sure those experiences are the same in every location. If we franchised, we would lose control over that.
The downside is we have not expanded as fast as some players that did franchise, McDonald’s being the prime example.
Q: What are some ways White Castle is growing?
Lisa: We’re building an $18 million frozen-food facility in Vandalia that will create about 100 jobs. Typically, we add anywhere from five to eight restaurants a year.
We’re always looking at new markets. But right now, we’re focusing on our existing markets. Recently, we have been spending a lot more money renovating our existing buildings.
That said, we’re testing three brand-in-brands, two each of our barbecue brand, Blaze sandwich brand, Decker’s, and noodle brand, Laughing Noodle. Each brand is located inside an existing White Castle store.
Q: Bill, how does it feel to have your daughter join your business?
Bill: It is gratifying to see that she is interested in our family business.
Lisa: Dad was great. He never forced me into the business. I remember one time he told me, “You have four years of college. If it takes you six years, I’m only paying for four. So you do the math.”
Bill: You could have been a free spirit. But you wouldn’t have been a subsidized free spirit.
Q: What do you get paid to do at White Castle, and what do you do “for free” because you like doing it?
Bill: I’m not much of a meeting person. So I get paid for sitting through meetings. I visit the facilities for free because that’s kind of fun.
Lisa: I love to be out in the regions, and I enjoy giving presentations and talking about our future, so, that’s probably what I do for free. But I am not a detail person, so I get paid to focus on the details of operations.
Q: How has the transition to the fourth generation, which includes Lisa, been going?
Bill: I have heard horror stories about the next generation coming in and causing turmoil, that their work habits aren’t what they were in prior generations. But none of that has happened with this family group.
Lisa: I would wholeheartedly agree. My siblings and cousins who work in the business are passionate, hard-working individuals.