White Castle System, Inc. was formed in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, by a partnership between Walter Anderson, a professional cook, and Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram, a local real estate and insurance agent. In 1916, Anderson developed a different method of preparing a hamburger sandwich by flattening a ball of ground meat and cooking it with onions on a hot griddle for a short period of time. Prior to Anderson's method of preparation, the hamburger sandwich consisted of a thick ball of ground meat cooked slowly on a griddle for an indefinite period of time. His hamburger sandwich proved popular enough for Anderson to open three hamburger stands in Wichita between 1916 and 1920. In March 1921, Ingram joined Anderson as a partner in the operation of a fourth location under the name White Castle. The company incorporated in 1924 as the White Castle System of Eating Houses.
Anderson and Ingram opened another hamburger stand in Kansas City, in 1924, and over the next six years they rapidly expanded their company's operations to include locations in twelve major cities in the eastern half of the United States. This expansion created the need for a more centrally located corporate headquarters, so in 1934 the company moved its business operations to its present location in Columbus, Ohio. By this time White Castle was wholly owned by Billy Ingram, who bought out Anderson's share in the company in 1933.
The company's rapid expansion was due in part to its development of the methods required to operate the first chain restaurant in the country. A written set of standards for restaurant operations, food preparation, and employee appearance enabled the company to maintain a high degree of uniformity at each of its locations. With the help of suggestions from employees, the company also developed much of the equipment used at its restaurants. One of the company's patented developments, a paper hat for restaurant employees, resulted in the formation of a corporate subsidiary, the Paperlynen Company.
A noted feature of the company's first decades was the building housing the White Castle restaurants. During this time period White Castle leased most of the space for its restaurants on a short-term basis due to the small amount of land required for its standard five-stool hamburger stand. To protect the company's investment in the building, a White Castle employee, Loyd Ray, designed a movable, all-steel frame structure enclosed with interior and exterior porcelain enamel panels -- the first use of such materials in a building design. The buildings were modeled after Chicago's Old Water Tower and provided White Castle with a distinctive and practical solution to its building needs. Fifty-five of these hamburger stands were manufactured from 1928 to 1956. All those constructed after 1934 were made by another corporate subsidiary, the Porcelain Steel Building Company.
White Castle also was innovative in the company's marketing of its products. In the 1920s the average American had a negative perception about the hamburger sandwich. In an effort to change this attitude and to expand its carry-out business White Castle pioneered the newspaper coupon. First used in St. Louis on June 3, 1932, a White Castle coupon was good for a carry-out order of five hamburgers for the cost of ten cents. The coupon offer proved an overwhelming success and helped the company introduce its hamburger to a wide audience. Other company innovations in marketing included the use of free hand-outs such as score pads for bridge, golf, and bowling, all containing advertisements for White Castle products and a listing of its restaurant locations.
Also in 1932, the company started a program to introduce the nation's housewives to its products and the convenience of its carry-out services. The program was headed by a company employee, given the name Julia Joyce, who traveled to the various White Castle locations giving restaurant tours to local housewives and samples of company products to women's clubs. The program also published menu books containing suggestions of foods to serve along with White Castle hamburgers.
The rationing of such food staples as meat, sugar, and coffee during the Second World War halted the company's expansion and limited the service available at existing White Castle restaurants. The war also created a shortage of male labor, which required White Castle to hire its first female employees. White Castle was slow to recover from the effects of the war, but did resume expansion during the 1950s on a more modest scale. During the decades of the 1950s through the 1970s White Castle participated in the growth of the fast food market in America by offering curb service, since replaced by drive-thru service, and an expanded menu. The company also replaced its five stool hamburger stands with larger buildings and built new restaurants in more suburban locations.
In the past fifteen years, White Castle experimented with expansion into foreign locations in both Japan and Malaysia, as well as new locations within the United States. The company also developed another subsidiary, White Castle Distributing, Inc., to market its line of frozen, microwave hamburgers after a series of highly publicized "carry-out" orders of thousands of White Castle hamburgers to the Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982, and to various cities in Arizona and California during the 1980s. White Castle remains a privately held company owned by the Ingram family and operates close to three hundred restaurants and a number of subsidiary businesses.
Ingram, E.W., Sr. All This from a 5-cent Hamburger! The Story of the White Castle System. New York: The Newcomen Society, 1964.
Langdon, Philip. Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
"How an Idea Built on Nickels Does Business in the Millions," Restaurant Management. Volume 37, Number 2 (August 1935), pages 81-86.
White Castle System, Inc. Records (MSS 991), Ohio Historical Society.