White Castle has been in the business of late night for a long time.
It started in the late 1920s, when founder Billy Ingram wanted to make sure people getting off their shift late could find somewhere still open to eat. “A lot of our early locations were in the industrial parts of town where it was important to be able to find something hot and tasty at the end of your day, even if the end of your day was 3 in the morning,” says Jamie Richardson, White Castle’s vice president.
That target market of folks on the night shift is still prevalent today, though anyone who wants a snack or meal in the middle of the night can take advantage of the hours.
For decades, the company, which turned 100 last year, has been open at all hours. That is, until the pandemic.
“For the sake of our teams we realized that we needed to adjust,” Richardson says. “We limited our hours and experienced what others do, which is to close around midnight and open up in the morning to start with breakfast.”
White Castle returned to its full 24-hour schedule in 2021.
This summer, the restaurant chain is promoting that late-night comeback with a new marketing campaign that started on the summer solstice. The promotions include merchandise available for sale with the moniker of “Night Castle” and special packaging including themed collectable cups.
“The results have exceeded our expectations in terms of the hunger that’s out there for late-night adventure,” Richardson says.
Like many others in the industry, White Castle faced staffing issues coming out of the pandemic in late 2021 and early 2022.
Though a significant number of jobs have been added since COVID’s onset, the industry was still down 1.3 million jobs, or 7.8 percent, in June, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Richardson credits White Castle’s ability to create a campaign around being open later—not scaling back operating hours—to its staff rebound. Famously, more than one in four of White Castle’s employees has been with the brand for 10 years or more.
“It was a bold move to say we’re going to go bigger on late night at a time when it’s hard to hire,” Richardson says. “But, at the same time, we know that we’ve got communities we’re serving and a really great, incredible core team that’s going to make it all possible.”
The nearly 350-unit brand had system-wide sales of $615 million in 2021 and is entirely company-owned.
Though the brand turned 101 this year, White Castle is still focused on how it can continue to bring in customers through innovation and new ideas.
One of these is automation, something other quick-service companies like Chipotle have been investing a significant pot of money into in light of the labor shortage. White Castle rolled out Miso Robotics’ Flippy 2, a robot that can operate the fry station, in 100 locations in February of this year.
Even with new innovative practices such as the use of robotics, White Castle has stuck to long-held traditions, like late night. This summer campaign reminds customers how the brand once occupied that segment of the market and plans to do so once again.
“For us, part of the fun is late night craves are morning, noon and night,” Richardson says. “Being 24 hours is a big deal and we’ve got over 10,000 team members to make that possible.”