MacDonald’s is one of the largest burger chains worldwide, but it wasn’t the first. Almost 20 years earlier emerged a fledgling enterprise, White Castle.
Cook Billy Ingram and entrepreneur Walter Anderson opened the first White Castle Hamburgers restaurant—“a little shack” with a window—in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921. It cost $700 to get started. They netted $3.75 profit the first day of business.
The rest is hamburger history.
The Healthy-Hamburger Concept
Upton Sinclair’s exposé novel The Jungle had been published in 1906, describing atrocious conditions inside meat-packing plants. Anderson and Ingram were determined to overcome the public’s leery attitude toward processed beef products.
To prove the nutritional value of its hamburgers, White Castle in 1931 engaged a food scientist to test them. A medical student reportedly lived on a strict diet of White Castle hamburgers and water for three months and “maintained good health.”
Hamburgers in the Early Years
White Castle burgers in 1921 cost a nickel. By 1950, the cost had skyrocketed to 12 cents (but initially, to build their business, the White Castle owners actually decreased the price).
They opened a White Castle in El Dorado, Kansas, in 1922. They branched to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1923; Kansas City and then St. Louis, Missouri, in 1924 and ’25; and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1926. By 1930, White Castle was in New Jersey and New York.
The company in the early ’30s began using frozen meat patties and advertising fast-food coupons. During World War II (1939-45), beef was rationed. Taking the hardship in stride, White Castle started selling hotdogs.
In time, company innovators discovered they could make a burger cook faster by putting holes in it. White Castle burgers are known for their five holes—four near the corners and one in the middle, resembling the “5” side of a dice.
White Castle Expands Its Menu
Fish sandwiches were added to the menu in 1955, milkshakes in 1956, cheeseburgers in 1962. By that year, White Castle had sold more than a billion hamburgers. By 1968, it had sold approximately 2 billion.
Later, the chain broadened its selections with such items as onion chips, breakfast sandwiches and jalapeño cheeseburgers.
White Castle is famous for its “Slider,” a small, square patty sandwiched with onions and pickle in an oven-size roll. It’s usually sold in multiple quantities as “sacked” meals. The burgers are single- or double-decker, with or without cheese, with various extra ingredients, typically packaged with drink and French fry options.
The company proudly dubs its legions of regular customers “Cravers.” Its corporate Web site attests: “It is because of them and through them that we go on. The more you crave, the more we serve.”
The White Castle Legacy
Anderson sold his interest in the business to Ingram in 1933. Billy Ingram died in 1966, and his descendants have guided the company. The company’s record shows, among other landmarks, that it was the first chain to sell a million burgers, the first to sell a billion and the first to sell frozen fast food.
White Castle today has headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
- Inventions That Changed the World [“The Eventful Century”]. Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. (1999).
- White Castle Web Site.