Family Business White Castle: Catering to Cravers for 90 years

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White Castle: Catering to Cravers
for 90 years
The company—the first hamburger chain—
relishes its iconic status.
By Sally Snell
In 1921, partners Edgar Waldo “Billy”
Ingram and Walter “Walt” Anderson opened
the first White Castle restaurant in a 15x10foot white cement-block building with five
counter stools. The Wichita, Kan., eatery
served hamburger sandwiches, pie, coffee
and cola. That modest beginning would
eventually legitimize the hamburger as a
mainstream meal, spark a seismic shift in
American culture and inspire a host of
In the early part of the 20th century,
stopping for a burger on the way home from
work was nearly unheard of. Hamburgers
were sold primarily at fairs, and the meat
was viewed with suspicion. The standard
1920s-era burger—a meatball served
between two slices of bread—would be
barely recognizable today.
Walt Anderson, who had worked as a grill
cook, used a spatula to flatten his meat
patties into a bed of grilled onions and
served them on small buns. He was an
overnight success; between 1916 and
1920, he had opened four stands in Wichita.
But he couldn’t qualify for a lease to open a
fifth location.
Billy Ingram, who was an insurance agent
and a real estate broker at the time, had
been involved in the lease negotiations and
recognized the business’s growth potential.
The partnership was launched with a $700
investment, which Billy borrowed and repaid
in less than 90 days, according to family
lore. Billy chose the name “White Castle” to
convey purity, stability and permanence—
concepts that were reflected in the
whitewashed walls and castellated design of
the early restaurants.
The tiny restaurants raised additional
revenue by promoting carry-out sandwiches.
The five-cent burgers were affordable
enough for customers to buy in bulk and
share. White Castle’s “By ’em by the sack”
advertising campaign— which Walt
Anderson was using even before he
partnered with Billy Ingram—encouraged
patrons to do just that.
Because Billy and Walt’s restaurant was
unique, the cooking equipment and utensils
of the day had to be redesigned to meet
their requirements. At many turns Billy and
Walt solved this problem by buying
businesses that designed and manufactured
the supplies White Castle needed. To this
day, the company remains vertically
integrated. Its Porcelain Steel Buildings
(PSB) division makes the restaurant’s
stainless-steel fixtures and equipment. (It
was originally founded as a way of
prefabricating White Castle restaurants.)
White Castle also operates bakeries and
meat plants. Another division, White Castle
Distributing (WCD) LLC, produces a line of
frozen food for retail sale.
“The meat and the buns are the absolute
most important thing to us in terms of our
product,” says chief operating officer Lisa
Ingram, 40, Billy’s great-granddaughter. “If
there were shortages, given that we are
competing against very large players, we
would fall down the totem pole when
suppliers are trying to get product to
different people. Having as much control
over that process as possible helps us
mitigate that.”
In 1933, partner Walt Anderson’s interest in
White Castle was waning, while Billy Ingram
remained steadfastly enthusiastic about
growing the company. Billy purchased Walt’s
stock, and the company has been solely
owned by the Ingram family ever since.
By 1934—20 years before Ray Kroc first
linked up with the McDonald brothers—
White Castle had expanded to 16 cities from
Kansas to New York. Wichita was the
western boundary of the territory, so Billy
moved the company headquarters to a more
central location: Columbus, Ohio.
“Walter and Billy started building a great
thing. But when Walter left the company and
we moved to Columbus, Ohio, that’s when it
really started to take on my greatgrandfather’s personality,” says assistant
vice president Dave Rife, who at 48 is the
oldest member of the fourth generation. “He
was fanatical about quality and he was
fanatical about customer service and he was
fanatical about people.”
White Castle’s striking blue-and-gray
headquarters building was once a red-brick
factory that was renovated according to
Billy’s specifications. Visitors enter through a
crenellated turret—made by PSB—covered
in enameled steel panels typical of early
White Castle restaurants. The building’s first
floor houses PSB’s factory space. The
upstairs offices and corridors are paneled in
dark mahogany; private offices ring the
exterior walls. Were it not for the security
cameras, computers and White Castle
memorabilia, the offices could be straight
from a film noir movie set.
Today the company operates about 415
restaurants in the Northeast and Midwest
and employs about 10,000 people. In 2010
its restaurants and frozen food division sold
more than half a billion hamburgers, and all
divisions combined generated revenues of
more than $614 million. All White Castle
restaurants are company-owned.
Catching up with changing times
bun with steam from the onions.
White Castles have grown up with America.
Drive-through windows were added as
automobiles became more popular.
Recently, online ordering was instituted.
That’s a far cry from the mechanical cash
registers that Billy’s grandson Bill Ingram
used when he started at the company nearly
40 years ago.
“It’s an acquired taste,” says Lisa’s father,
Bill Ingram, 60, White Castle’s president and
CEO. “That’s one of the unique things about
the brand. We have worked very hard to
maintain our particular image as a ‘not-likeevery-fast-food restaurant.’ It’s not
something you can duplicate at home or buy
someplace else.”
During the Depression, the home office
advised regional offices to hide the day’s
proceeds rather than putting them in the
Change at White Castle—such as the
introduction of baked beans and fries to
counteract wartime shortages and
rationing—is slow and methodical. “I’ll bet
that, in hindsight, we might not have waited
42 years to introduce one of our big new
product items: the cheeseburger,” says
Jamie Richardson. “You should see the
notes from the debates.”
White Castle customers—who have been
known as Cravers since a 1994 ad
campaign—are passionately devoted to the
burgers and nostalgic about the restaurants’
early architecture. The company has more
than 255,000 Facebook fans. Devotees
have written songs and made movies about
the restaurant chain and have invented a
host of recipes made with White Castle
hamburgers, including exotic fare like
Burmese curry cups.
In 2001 the company established a Cravers
Hall of Fame to honor its most die-hard fans.
Since then more than 6,600 customers have
applied, but as of 2010 only 67 have been
inducted, White Castle reports. Having a
White Castle tattoo puts a Craver on the fast
track to a Hall of Fame nomination, confides
Jamie Richardson, 45, the company’s vice
president of government and shareholder
relations. Landing a helicopter in a field near
a White Castle restaurant or riding a vintage
Harley hundreds of miles to load up on the
sandwiches doesn’t hurt, either.
Even the name of the company’s flagship
product, the Slyder, came from customers.
“A lot of people said [the burgers] were so
good, they would just slide down your
throat,” Lisa Ingram says. The company
trademarked the Slyder name in 1993.
Today some of America’s trendiest upscale
restaurants are offering small sandwiches
they call “sliders.” How do the White Castle
stakeholders feel about appropriation of the
name? “Imitation is the sincerest form of
flattery,” says Richardson, whose wife, Kate,
is another great-granddaughter of Billy
Ingram. “We’re the epicenter of that
expression. It’s fun to see that many people
think of Castle first when having a slider.”
In 1951, Billy Ingram sought ways to reduce
expenses as prices rose. The solution was to
reduce the meat on each patty by making
the 2-inch square patty thinner and adding
five holes.
bank to protect the company from potential
bank failures, “so we had money to pay our
meat suppliers and bun suppliers, so that
we had product to sell,” says fourthgeneration member John Kelley, 43. Kelley,
who heads up human resources and
restaurant operations training at White
Castle, holds the title of Chief People Officer.
After World War II, the country became more
mobile. But those who moved away from
White Castle’s regional reach still hungered
for the sandwiches. As early as 1954, a
customer in Kentucky paid the company to
pack 12 hamburgers on dry ice and ship
them by air freight them to her brother in
Los Angeles.
Walt Anderson’s original burgers, which he
made by squashing a meatball with a
spatula, were irregularly shaped and slightly
squarish. The square became more
pronounced in 1931, when one of the
company’s meat processors began
preparing and shipping frozen burgers to
Castles to ensure freshness and quality. The
first frozen Castle patties were cooked on
one side over a bed of freshly diced onion,
and then flipped to finish cooking on the
other side.
The company launched a frozen food
division in 1987 because “we were
developing a pretty strong base of home
users who wanted our product,” says fourthgeneration member Brad Rife, 45, who is
general manager of White Castle’s frozen
food division. The company’s iconic burgers
are sold through major grocery chains
across the U.S. The burgers have been
available in vending machines since 1993
and, according to the company, are the top
seller in their vending category nationwide.
With World War II came food rationing.
Shortages hit the Castle hard. The thickness
of the patty, and how the sandwich was
prepared, changed in order to reduce waste.
The company switched to dehydrated onions
and began cooking the meat without
flipping, which cut down on waste caused by
patty breakage. This method also enabled
cooks to place the upper bun on the meat
while it was on the grill, warming the
The company has concentrated its
expansion within the geographic area where
it already has a presence. “The overarching
reason for the purposefulness of our growth
is to not put our team members at risk by
expanding too rapidly,” says Richardson.
For now, at least, the company plans to use
its growing frozen food division as a way of
expanding product availability nationwide.
Resources\Authors\FBMagazine\Snell, Sally - White Castle - Catering to Cravers for 90
Henry D. Landes, President
Family members pass muster
The family was ill prepared for Billy’s death
in 1966. “I think it really caught everybody
off guard,” says assistant vice president
Dave Rife.
Family members decline to elaborate on the
challenges the Castle confronted during this
period. “From the stories I’ve heard, it
almost put the company under,” Dave says.
“It really put a lot at risk,” says Richardson.
“I look at it as the legacy of [Billy’s son]
Edgar, that the easiest thing in the world for
him to have done at that moment would
have been just to have sold the business
and cash out, deal with any estate tax
issues, and lead a very happy, wealthy life.
Instead, he chose to push through and keep
building this,” bringing continuity and
economic stability to the company. Edgar,
who died in 2001 at age 90, led the
company from 1966 to 1979.
“Once we got through that crisis, the family
and the business has done a lot of hard
work around succession planning and
ensuring we don’t ever get ourselves in that
situation again,” Dave Rife says.
Edgar’s son, third-generation member Bill
Ingram, became president in 1979 and CEO
in 1994. The other third-generation member
active in the business is Bill’s sister Maryann
Ingram Kelley, 65, a board member and a
trustee of the Ingram-White Castle
Foundation. The foundation, created by Billy
Ingram in 1949, supports projects in the
areas of education, health and human
services, and hunger relief.
Nine fourth-generation members work fulltime at the Castle. Currently, there are 27
fifth-generation members; the oldest is now
25, the youngest was born this year.
Communication is key to keeping the
shareholders united, family members say.
Newsletters and a secure shareholder
website keep family members engaged and
ensure transparency about business
An annual family meeting was instituted a
decade ago. The three-day event includes a
day or two dedicated to business meetings
and shareholder updates. “I think getting
together and having open conversations
makes a big difference,” says fourth-
generation member Shannon Tolliver, the
company’s sustainability manager. Tolliver,
who is Lisa Ingram’s sister, is the mother of
the youngest fifth-generation member.
The gatherings include fun activities for the
adults as well as the fifth-generation
children. One year, the children baked
cookies in the training area and sold them
around the home office. Afterward they
reassembled and calculated material costs
and taxes.
The family members who work for the
company completed a 360-degree feedback
program to identify their personal and
professional strengths. Resources were then
directed to help each person “achieve as
much as they can to prepare them for even
more responsibilities,” Richardson says.
A peaceable kingdom
Employees who are inducted into the
company’s 25 Year Club—established in
1946—travel to White Castle headquarters
at the company’s expense and are
chauffeured in limousines to the awards
banquet. “We have team members who have
worked here for over 40 years, and that is
very unusual in this business,” Lisa Ingram
Company newsletters of the 1920s reported
on Walt’s travels to far-flung Castles in a
company-owned biplane. Billy, Edgar and Bill
Ingram all made a point of visiting every
single Castle each year. Today the company
has grown so much that this ambitious
undertaking is no longer practical, but all
Castle regions still receive at least one visit
from a family member annually.
Because the brand has such a loyal
following, “we can do some really fun
things,” Lisa notes. On Valentine’s Day,
guests are served tableside. “We have a lot
of people who actually met [or] had their
first dates at White Castle, so on Valentine’s
Day we take reservations,” Lisa explains.
Weddings in White Castles have also become
extremely popular.
“We have really put a big emphasis on
utilizing social media to try to attract the
younger generation,” says Lisa.
The 2004 movie Harold and Kumar Go to
White Castle gave the brand a big boost.
When the producers asked for approval to
use the White Castle name in the film, Jamie
described the script to Bill as “rated R, and
kind of raunchy.”
As Jamie Richardson recalls it, Bill’s first
question was, “Does it make fun of our team
“I said no; it’s very complimentary to them,”
Richardson remembers. “He said, ‘I’m OK
with it, then.’ The film itself is really a love
letter to White Castle.”
Sally Snell is a freelance writer
based in Lawrence, KS.
Reprinted by permission of the
publisher from Autumn, 2011,
Family Business, Philadelphia,
For more information about developing family leaders or other resources for family businesses, contact Delaware Valley Family Business Center at
(215) 723-8413, or visit
Please see page 4 for
Ingram Family Tree,
Generations 1-4
The company has been reaching out to
attract younger customers. The Castles are
being redecorated to appeal to a younger
demographic. Diners who haven’t stopped
by a White Castle in a few years may be
surprised to find chicken and pulled pork
sandwiches, plus sweet potato fries.
Resources\Authors\FBMagazine\Snell, Sally - White Castle - Catering to Cravers for 90
Henry D. Landes, President
Resources\Authors\FBMagazine\Snell, Sally - White Castle - Catering to Cravers for 90
Henry D. Landes, President