The History of White Castle
by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko
(The following historical information comes from the book “Selling ‘em by the Sack” written by David Gerard Hogan. The book was sent to the Chamber courtesy of corporate headquarters of White Castle in Columbus, Ohio, on the company’s 70th Anniversary. Part 2 is about our very own Whiting White Castle and the company during the War and beyond.)
The history of the little 5 cent hamburger is virtually the history of today’s fast-food industry and mirrors the changes in America’s culture over the last 70 some years as well.
While we all consider the hamburger America ’s number one food, it was not always so. Housewives would ask their butcher for beef and then have him grind it before their eyes, so they could make sure that nothing was being added. Rumors ran rampant that putrid meats and chemicals were used in ground beef. No wonder the public mistrusted what they considered “mystery meat.” And while the hamburger did well as a novelty at county fairs, it was rarely on restaurant menus as it was considered the food of the poor.
There are many who claim to have “invented” the hamburger. Was it invented in Hamburg, New York, which might account for its name, or was its inventor Charlie Nagreen of Sagmour, Wisconsin, who introduced it at the Outgamie County Fair in 1885? Nagreen sold hamburgers that were more like a meatball. When customers preferred to walk around the fair while they ate, Nagreen began to put the meatball between two pieces of bread.
Nevertheless, the lowly hamburger itself was slow to catch on with the public.
In the 1920s, Americans shared no common ground. There were intense ethnic and racial divisions, and these were mirrored in food preferences too. Though diners began to pop up around the country in this period, most families still ate their meals at home and most diners were considered “greasy spoons.”
This is the climate in which a new food industry was born. In Wichita, Kansas, J. Walter Anderson was a grill cook with a creative bent. Being bored with every day cooking, Anderson would experiment with ground beef, smothering it with onions, making it into different shapes and serving it with a variety of condiments.
Because his experiments were popular with customers, Anderson borrowed $80 and opened his own little restaurant. He bought an old shoe repair stand that had three stools in it and put a sign over the door that read “Hamburgers 5 Cents.” Then he found a flat piece of iron on which he grilled the burgers right in front of the customers’ eyes, so they knew exactly what they were getting.
The story is told of three little boys who came to buy a sackful one day. Anderson noticed that the boys were very well dressed, not like most of the little boys who came in off the street. He watched them as they left the stand and saw them get into a waiting automobile in which sat their mother. It was obvious to him that while they enjoyed the taste of his burgers, their mother found it in bad taste to be seen in public purchasing such a product.
In 1921, Anderson added the true winning ingredient to his hamburger making, a partner named Billy Ingram. Ingram’s background was in finance, insurance and real estate, but he was entranced with the success of Anderson’s little stand and brought his creative talents to the table…or counter, as may be more fitting.
His goal was to change the image of the little innocent burger. He started by coming up with a name for the business and selecting an architectural style for its building. No longer would burgers come from a shabby shack. Now they would be sold in a castle that was loosely modeled on Chicago’s Water Tower. It was a medieval motif reinforced by using stain-glassed windows. The outside would be whitewashed. (All early White Castles were 10 x 15 foot in dimension and contained a stainless-steel counter with five stools.) The company’s new name was symbolic of the product they were offering to the public: “white” for purity and “castle” for strength and stability. On the wall was painted the new slogan “White Castle Hamburgers 5 Cents” along with a catchy slogan Anderson used, “Buy ‘em by the Sack.”
Cleanliness was always one of the company’s main concerns, and they were proud of their emphasis on sanitation.
They hired only young men between the ages of 18 to 24. There were two men per restaurant and each wore a clean white shirt, black tie and white pants covered with a sparkling white apron. No watches could be worn. All employee uniforms were washed and pressed by the company itself. Employees were held to a strict standard of conduct and personal hygiene and Ingram felt that his employees’ politeness was as every bit as important as the number of hamburgers they would sell.
The biggest obstacle Ingram faced was “selling” the public on the idea that hamburgers themselves were wholesome. During this time, there were many exposés read by the public on the use of sulfite used in hamburgers to hide the fact that it was simply spoiled beef.
Less than 20 years earlier, author Upton Sinclair had written “The Jungle,” an expose on the meat packing industry in Chicago. The uproar about the book led to the passing of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906). Even the famous author Duncan Hines wrote about the questionable purity of hamburger meat.
To fight this prejudice, Ingram commissioned a study by the physiological chemistry department of the University of Minnesota to prove the nutritional value of his burgers.
Soon the partners opened eight locations in Wichita and expanded to smaller cities in the state. White Castle’s menu of pie, coffee, Coke and nickel hamburgers was being well accepted by the public. By 1930, with 116 restaurants in 12 major cities, Ingram declared White Caste “a national institution.”
In 1925, the little cement block buildings were changed to white enamel buildings, again with the idea of cleanliness and sanitation in mind. The new restaurants had basements added for electric refrigeration and heating systems. The steel buildings could actually be taken apart and transported to a new location when necessary.
All White Castle buildings and their menus were identical. At this point in history, the public craved standardization and uniformity. Big chain stores and national brands were now popular. Corporate image buying made the public feel secure about what they were buying. And now, as even the common man owned a car, people were eating out more than ever. White Castle started “curb service” where a smiling employee would actually bring your order right out to your automobile.
Because of its success, White Castle had many imitators. Not only did these imitators serve a nickel burger but their buildings looked just like a little White Castle. Their names varied little too. On the hamburger range appeared such little restaurants as Little Kastle, Little Palace, Royal Castle, White Tower and White Fortress, among others.
By this time White Castle had 300 restaurants open east of the Mississippi, but two of the biggest threats were competitors Kewpee and Krystal's. There were so many hamburger joints on Times Square that people began to call the area “Hamburger Row.” And while the threat of competition was everywhere, the opening of so many hamburger restaurants also promoted the hamburger craze.
As the nation found itself in a great Depression, White Castle found that it was thriving. By this time, the hamburger had become a national symbol, at least for the lower classes. Movie actors ate hamburgers in movies, characters in novels dined on them. Hamburgers even appeared in Popeye cartoons. The character Wellington Wimpy’s quote “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” became a national saying.
In the 1930s, the partners decided to move their corporate headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, which was the geographic center of their burger empire. At the beginning of the decade, they had sold 21 million hamburgers and were still building new restaurants. The public, though poorer, still bought the burgers because they were affordable and because White Castle had become a staple in their daily lives.
White Castle was also a great place to work. Since the beginning, the company offered sick benefits, insurance and bonuses. Employees ate free while they worked and even a birthday cake arrived for each employee’s birthday. It was a secure place of employment, which paid well for the times, and the company’s benefit package made for loyal employees.
In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, who then retired. But Ingram went on his own to start one of the first marketing ploys ever used for restaurants. Instead of general marketing, he placed coupons in newspapers advertising five hamburgers for only a dime, carryout only, beginning at 2 p.m. By 3 p.m. on coupon day, White Castles across the country ran out of food! Literally a million coupons were brought in and lines formed for blocks. Not only was the coupon campaign successful, but Ingram’s main purpose, to introduce the middle classes to his little hamburger for the first time, did just that.
Bringing the middle class to White Castle was important to the owner. With this in mind, he introduced Julia Joyce, the company spokeswoman who traveled around the country, educating middle class women about the virtues of White Castle hamburgers. Like General Mills’ Betty Crocker, she cited research, gave out samples, and helped moms plan a weekly menu that included White Castle as the main course. Joyce also presided over many charitable events and White Castle itself became one of the first companies to form a family philanthropic foundation to distribute millions to the needy.
While White Castle did well through the Depression, little did it see the problems that WWII would bring.
While White Castle did well through the Depression, little did it see the problems that WWII would bring. By 1943, out of 700 employees, 600 of their men had joined the service. The company hired younger men who did not show the talents and tenacity their older employees had. Absenteeism, laziness and giving away food to their friends greatly reduced White Castle’s productivity and profits. So, after 21 years, Ingram decided it was time to give women a chance to join the White Castle workforce. The women’s slogan was “We’ll keep 'em frying while they keep ‘me flying” referring to the former male employees now overseas.
While a shortage of help was disturbing, more disturbing was the rationing of such items as sugar, coffee, and meat. When White Castle’s ration of sugar was cut by a fourth, sugar bowls on the counter were removed. Customers would receive one sugar cube and could only get a second by requesting one. Because of the lack of sugar, Coca Cola, a mainstay on the menu, was impossible to get. Eventually a concoction called Co-ed Coke was substituted until after the war.
But the most profitable item on the menu, coffee, was also the most difficult item to get. Because of shortages, most people really relied on getting their coffee from White Castle because it was no longer in their pantry at home.
At first, White Castle changed their cup from 8 ounces to a 6-ounce mug. As shortages went on, customers only got a cup that was three-quarters full and a customer was only allowed one cup per visit. By 1942, White Castle‘s coffee was only 65 percent of what it normally would be, and they sought desperate measures. Chicory was added to the mix.
One permanent change in the White Castle recipe came about due to a shortage of onions. At this time, White Castle switched to dehydrated onions, which were readily available, and their use hasn’t changed since.
Because of meat shortages, White Castle had to be innovative and add to their normal menu. For a while they added egg sandwiches (after midnight), grilled cheese and baked beans which were quite popular with its loyal customers. White Castle even took an emergency measure and started to serve a side dish to go along with the burgers for the first time…the French fry.
Despite all their creative attempts, the shortages caused a drop in profits and many White Castles closed. By 1945, the number of White Castles went from 130 to 87. Under Truman, the cost of beef skyrocketed and after 20 some years, White Castle was forced to raise the price of its little nickel burger to a dime.
The 1950s were rough for urban restaurants as men returned from the war and families moved from the cities to the newly created suburbs. Help was hard to find because most women went home to become moms and the newly returned men could find tremendous salaries in local industry. Government regulations put a lot of pressure on the restaurant industry and there was now more inner-city crime. Food shortages still abounded.
In 1951, White Castle trimmed the size of its patty in order to get more patties from each pound of ground beef. The square was now thinner and five distinctive holes were drilled into the burger. This helped the patty cook faster and allowed more steam and juices into the bun. This got a positive response from the public and remains so today.
But as in the 1920s, there were many new fast food companies to contend with. But these new burger places did not imitate White Castle. The first, all of whom believed in the concept of franchising which White Castle never did, was Steak N Shake followed by Howard Johnson’s. Other national chains included Bob’s Big Boy, McDonald’s and Burger King.
In order to fight back, White Castle offered a more diverse menu adding shakes and bringing back fries, which they had discontinued. During the Korean War, they started offering fish sandwiches on Fridays only to attract Catholic customers.
Despite the heavy competition, White Castle sold over 100 million hamburgers in 1958 and in 1959.
As today, customers who were loyal to White Castle wanted to “share” their hamburgers with others who had no access to a White Castle. In 1954, a lady paid White Castle to airfreight a dozen to her brother who lived in LA. White Castle packed them in dry ice and even took them to the airport. They personally shipped hamburgers to customers for almost 30 years until they started actually marketing frozen ones in local grocery stores.
Today our own White Castle, started in 1935, stands as a fortress to 119th Street. For years, it was the only one in the area. One lady from Griffith said that back in the 1940s whenever her family went to Chicago, the trip was not complete unless they stopped at Whiting’s White Castle on the way home. Another said that whenever her father’s shift ended at midnight, he’d bring home White Castles for the whole family. They’d wake up and have a picnic in the wee hours of the morning. One young man told me that he thought his friend probably held the record for eating 23 White Castles at one sitting. There are countless memories from countless people about our own White Castle and what part it played in their daily lives.
Phyllis Yanas worked at the Castle in the late ‘50s. Even though the pay was $1.00 an hour, she thought it was a great place to work and she did so with a “great bunch of girls.”
Now White Castle holds a particular memory for Phyllis because she had a frequent customer, Andy, who would come in late every night for hot chocolate and a doughnut.
Though she says White Castles themselves didn’t agree with Andy, evidently this particular employee did because a year later, the two married.
Kitty Santay started at White Castle in 1951, when the restaurant had only five stools at the counter. The present day White Castle was renovated in the late 1960s.
“When I worked there at first it was all girls and we did everything from scrubbing the floors to washing the walls,” Kitty said. “But White Castle was a very good place to work. They paid for your insurance and you got a percentage of the profit as a Christmas bonus.”
Kitty said that counter workers had to go to meetings in Chicago, as well, to keep up on safety and other requirements for the company.
“They really wanted everything up to par,” she said.
While Kitty remembers that she met some wonderful people during her 15 years with White Castle, she, like Phyllis, had one very special customer. This was Gene from the Robertsdale Lumber Yard. He worked for his dad and they would often come in for a drink or something to eat. But Gene’s favorite item at White Castle was young Kitty. Later, like Andy and Phyllis, these two were married.
So, from budding romances to late night burgers, the one constant in our community since 1935 has always been our local White Castle, an important landmark here in Whiting. Happy 70th anniversary, White Castle, and many sackfulls more.