White Castle's iconic slider has made an impact on palates across the country for nearly 100 years, but the sliders might be just one part of the Columbus-based chain's sustained shares in an increasingly competitive fast-food market.

Jay McCarroll is an unrepentant "craver."

In January at White Castle's Short North restaurant, at the corner of Second Avenue and North High Street in Columbus, McCarroll ordered up four doubles, or a total of eight sliders, for lunch.

Cheese? Not on his burgers.

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"To be honest, they're delicious and they're easy," said McCarroll, 56, a contractor who was in town working at Ohio State University.

"I grew up in central Indiana," which did not have many White Castle locations.

Now he gets there about once a month.

Josh Cox, a fellow craver and friend of McCarroll, said he used to go to White Castle when his family drove to watch the Cincinnati Reds play.

"It was definitely different than any of the other fast food," said Cox, 40.

From boardrooms to dorm rooms, White Castle's iconic slider has made an impact on palates across the country for nearly 100 years: a 2-inch-squared thin patty of beef perforated with five holes for cooling, steam-grilled on a bed of onions, leaving that unmistakable aroma when somebody brings a bag of burgers through the door, and placed on a homemade baked bun with a pickle slice.

"These days we sell more cheese sliders than any other burger," said Jamie Richardson, vice president of marketing for the company. "Jalapeno burgers do pretty good, too."

>> White Castle milestones <<

But the sliders might be just one part of the recipe behind Columbus-based White Castle's sustained success.

The employees who make them and the customers who buy them are in the mix, too.

Sliders and cravers

Cravers are everywhere.

That's the term the company affectionately has assigned to ardent fans of its brand and menu.

The popularity goes far beyond the restaurant chain's famous portrayal in the 2004 film, "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," starring Kal Penn and John Cho.

The enthusiasm for sliders led the company in 2001 to establish a Cravers Hall of Fame, which tells fans' stories of "unmatched devotion" to the brand.

Thirteen cravers were added to the hall of fame Feb. 26 at the annual ceremony, joining 192 previous inductees.

They include 2017 inductee Walter Buttkus of Yorba Linda in southern California.

Buttkus flies the White Castle banner whenever he can, especially when he's on his "Crave Cruiser," an Indian Scout motorcycle with custom french-fry wheel spokes and saddlebags that can accommodate crave cases.

His love of sliders began when he was a child growing up in Union, New Jersey, where his father took him to Castle No. 17.

On a recent business trip to Las Vegas, he made a slight detour at the White Castle in Sin City, where he orders his favorite meal: "bottoms up" cheeseburgers, which are not on the menu but may be ordered by name, he said. (Editor's note: The style of slider was part of a Father's Day promotion in 2014 that used two bottom buns to enclose two beef patties, according to a past company news release.)

"I had to make sure I made a site visit," said Buttkus, 53.

On each Valentine's Day since 1991, the company has turned its retail stores into "Love Castles," where patrons make reservations and are treated to fine-dining accommodations, such as roses, candlelight and table-side service.

John and Jan Clark of German Village were there last month.

"We have participated in the past," John Clark said. "It's been a lot of fun. One year, we went on Valentine's Day evening with about five other couples, and we had a blast.

"I like White Castle hamburgers a lot. There's nothing wrong with celebrating White Castle and Valentine's Day -- and my love -- on the same day."

John Clark said he ordered "surf 'n' turf" -- a fried-fish patty between two burger patties, with cheese and on a slider bun.

Richardson said some customers' affection runs deep for White Castle.

"I think for us, we have an emotional connection with people that's unique," he said.

Past and future

The restaurant was founded by Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram and Walt Anderson on March 10, 1921, in Wichita, Kansas.

Anderson sold his interests to Ingram in 1933, and a year later, the family-owned company headquarters moved to Columbus to what would become an iconic blue-and-white porcelain building, 555 W. Goodale St.

On the same site, its 4-story replacement -- which made its official debut Jan. 30 and is visible from Interstate 670 -- has a modern look, with a blend of gray, cream and white, at 555 Edgar Waldo Way, a reference to the three family CEOs who led the business, the final retiring in 2015.

Lisa Ingram, the great-granddaughter of the founder, Billy Ingram, is the current CEO of the company.

The new headquarters building is bright and modern, and in addition to corporate offices, it contains a working kitchen, a test kitchen, company artifacts, an interactive digital-story wall that highlights company history and the Cravers Hall of Fame, a company timeline stretching along a multifloor staircase and a 2-story spiral slide -- mostly for fun -- just past the main entrance.

It is part of the site called the Reach on Goodale, which is a nod to its geographical location.

The complex includes five apartment buildings and a second office building.

In terms of its competition in the burger market, White Castle's footprint across the globe is as diminutive as its sliders, according to the company: It has 371 stores in the U.S. and four, interestingly enough, in China. By comparison, McDonald's operates more than 37,000 restaurants throughout the world, according to various figures.

"We're trying to be the best we can, not be the biggest," Richardson said. "And we get to have more fun along the way, and people benefit from that, too."

In the beginning, the menu was limited to four items: burgers, Coca-Cola, coffee and apple pie.

Certainly, the company has innovated, in food, adding onion chips, chicken rings, breakfast burgers, sloppy joes and plant-based burgers to the menu.

Culture and values

Customers helped build the brand, but employees have kept White Castle humming.

The company has 10,000 employees spread across the restaurants, meat plants, bakeries, retail-food plants and the home office.

Linda Sebok, director of training and development at corporate headquarters, has been with the company for 42 years, starting out at a store in Blue Island, Illinois.

Sebok, 58, graduated from Saint Xavier University in Chicago and Ohio Dominican College, earning a paycheck at the restaurant before joining the corporate family after college.

"The reason I love White Castle is the flexibility," she said. "It allowed me to do everything I wanted to do and still keep a good job."

Akylah Loving, a graduate of Columbus Downtown High School who works at the Short North restaurant, said she soon will attend the University of Virginia to study marketing.

Loving, 20, said she started working at White Castle because "I needed money," and now she hopes when she returns to Columbus on her breaks, the company will welcome her return.

"I think it's actually a good company because many of the workers I encounter have been here 20, 30, 40 years," she said. "And there's a reason for that."

"I think it's just part of a simple value of letting people know what they do well matters," Richardson said. "I think it's part of who we are."

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary