Equity you can’t buy
White Castle turned 100 on March 10, a full century from the day Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson chose to sell square hamburgers for 5 cents each. According to White Castle, this is the moment the fast-food burger chain industry was born. Roy W. Allen opened his first root beer stand in Lodi, California, in 1919 and then introduced A&W, along with Frank Wright, as a drive-in concept four years later in Sacramento, California. Trying to split hairs on the history between A&W and White Castle is a friendly debate, Lisa says.
Yet nobody can deny White Castle’s burger breakthrough—the Original Slider was dubbed the most influential burger ever by Time Magazine.
The first White Castle sprung up in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921 and began selling sliders by the sack. Billy Ingram moved the brand to Columbus, Ohio, in 1934 after buying out Anderson’s share. White Castle modified the Slider, adding five holes to speed cooking and add flavor, in 1947. Fourteen years after that, it became the first quick-serve to dish out a billion hamburgers. Cheese Sliders didn’t join the menu until 1962—the first new add in more than 40 years.
White Castle has grown to north of 360 stores since, but what’s so different, compared to the hordes of fast-food giants that joined the picture over those 100 years, is how little White Castle has drifted.
It’s a twofold byproduct of something you can’t buy or hire the best marketing firms in the world to recreate: One, Lisa runs the ship as a fourth-generation CEO who rightfully wears “Slider Queen,” T-shirts. She took the reins in 2015 following the retirement of her father, Bill Ingram, Billy Ingram’s grandson, who stepped aside after 43 years. Lisa, president at the time, was the fourth White Castle CEO in 94 years and the first not named Edgar Waldo Ingram.
The other point is the folkloric longevity and loyalty of those who work at White Castle, as noted earlier.
When the brand weighs decisions on its future, the conversations sit differently. There’s no timeline or Wall Street investor to appease. And those employees with 10, 20, 30, 40 years of experience have serious, personal stakes in White Castle’s success.
“You’re more worried if it works in the real world or not,” Richardson says.
This is where a balance is being struck today as White Castle prepares for “year 1 of the rest of our lives,” as Richardson calls it. The ability to celebrate and honor the reverence that’s brought White Castle to this place and time, but also understand what it takes to remain relevant fighting for share in one of the country’s fastest-moving industries—especially in the fallout of COVID-19 and the innovation it spurred.