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The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: White Castle

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The man who launched this "royal" house was first to make burgers respectable. Seriously.

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White Castle may occupy a lowly rung on the fast-food ladder today, but its fellow hamburger makers owe it supreme gratitude. The hamburger's genesis story begins with White Castle and its founder Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram in 1921, as the company gave birth to the multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry and a purely American meal.

The original success of White Castle was in its marketing. Ingram did not invent the hamburger, rather he introduced it to Americans at a cheap price and targeted it to specific segments of the population. This has not changed in 90 years.

Before 1921, the hamburger was an undesirable product, sold from unseemly street carts and lunch counters. With a restaurateur named J. Walter Anderson, Ingram, a former real-estate and insurance agent, spent $700 in opening the first White Castle in Wichita, Kansas. It is said that Anderson invented the hamburger bun there, standardizing and streamlining its production like Henry Ford had done for automobiles.Their kitchen was in the front of the place, answering Americans' concerns about meat safety.

The frozen hamburger patties of today were not then used. The first White Castle boasted twice daily deliveries of fresh beef. Anderson cooked the small, square burgers in large quantities on a hot grill, topped with fresh, thinly shredded onions. A pickle was inserted at the end. Contrary to the popular belief that the McDonald brothers were first to apply the assembly line method to burger-making, Anderson and Ingram brought the forces of modern life into the food industry. They devised a uniform system so that customers could expect the same burger every time.

That first White Castle store sold hamburgers in large quantities at five cents each. Ingram told his customers to "buy'em by the sack," introducing both the food and the take-out format that became synonymous with fast food, according to author David Gerard Hogan in Selling'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food (New York University Press, 1997).

The two men branded the hamburger as something dignified, beginning with the name White Castle. As food magazine Saveur put it, "[T]he business's name suggested purity and nobility, and the company promoted such airs by hiring a spokesperson to persuade women's groups that White Castle hamburgers were wholesome fare, ideal for family meals."

Like the way its burger was cooked, Ingram channeled that sameness and mechanization into other parts of the White Castle brand. In the early 1930s, he created a subsidiary company that manufactured paper hats, and another one that manufactured the prefabricated steel frame structures and porcelain enamel interior and exterior panels that made up every White Castle.

Americans followed Ingram's advice in droves. They craved more hamburgers. White Castle moved into Omaha, Nebraska, in 1923, and by the end of the decade had branched into every major Midwestern city and New York and New Jersey. In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, and a year later he moved its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio.

Countless imitators popped up everywhere, identical to White Castle in product, architecture, and even name; white porcelain restaurants like White Tower, White Clock, Royal Castle, or White Palace. Thousands of restaurants across the United States began selling a replica of the White Castle burger. The fast-food industry was officially born, and as a country we have been forced to deal with its consequences, many of them damaging to our health and diet, ever since.

Ingram steadfastly refused to franchise White Castle. He wanted to personally oversee every location. As a result, White Castle's empire never grew beyond the scale of a mostly regional operation, unlike McDonald's (MCD). Billy Ingram died in 1966, and his son and grandson would follow as president. The company remains privately held, so financial information is hard to come by. But with about 420 stores, the company not too long ago trailed only McDonald's in sales revenue per store.

The gloss of those early White Castle locations has worn off over the years. Its lowbrow profile, according to author David Gerard Hogan, is in part because Ingram focused on selling to the urban working class, which then became the urban underclass.

It's known now for its all-night hours and cheapness, and in popular culture, its desirability for stoners (immortalized in the film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) and drinkers at the end of a long session. Everybody knows that a "crave case" of sliders is a perfect end to the night, and with that successful marketing, Billy Ingram would likely be proud.
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