Sliders. Crave Cases. Burger patties with five holes in them. When we think of these things, the brand that comes to mind is one that bought out the hearts of Cravers for over a century. Founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, according to Kansas City, White Castle has stayed right where hamburgers and America’s love for fast food intersect. In over 100 years, the chain has grown out of Kansas and into a giant with hundreds of branches that dominates the past and present of fast food, from hamburgers to frozen sandwiches.
With a brand that’s an integral part of fast food culture, it might feel like everything to know about the "First Fast Food Hamburger Chain in the World" (as White Castle calls itself) is already common knowledge. But that assumption couldn’t be more wrong. As you’ll soon find out, beyond the quaint white-and-stainless-steel exteriors, there are a ton of twists, turns, and glossed-over technicalities in the story of White Castle. Here are some secrets of this fast food behemoth that you’re not supposed to know.
White Castle technically isn’t the oldest fast food brand
The White Castle fast food chain has had its fair share of successes and in over a century, it’s clear that the brand has amassed multiple badges of fast food honor. Of all of these firsts, White Castle seems most proud of one achievement: the birth of the brand. Its motto boasting about being around since 1921, the aptly-named 1921 slider, and a tagline that declares the brand to be the first fast food hamburger chain ever all point to a long, rich history.
Behind the smooth tagline, though, there’s a not-so-smooth technicality: White Castle isn’t the world’s oldest fast food chain. While White Castle was indeed founded in 1921, the A&W chain came about a couple of years earlier, as per A&W Restaurants. White Castle still gets to keep the honor, though, as A&W started with root beer. Its burgers came decades later in four meal-sized hamburger packages that were released in 1963, as per Franchise Chatter.
This technicality in the timeline means that while White Castle isn’t the oldest fast food chain, it was the first to ideate, implement, and develop the fast food business model, starting with cooked food like hamburgers. White Castle has to wear its proudest badge with carefully worded pride. Anything worded differently from "First Fast Food Hamburger Chain in the World" could introduce questions that are a wee bit trickier to answer.
White Castle is big on cleanliness because of a dirty reputation
One glance at a White Castle restaurant is all the proof you need that the "white" in its name is oftentimes literal. Seems unusual for a food brand that broke into the market with a bold, novel idea to gloss over catchy color options to choose plain ol’ white? Well, the color choice wasn’t without reason, because the events that led to it began 16 years earlier.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair, a reform-minded novelist, released "The Jungle," a book painting a graphic portrait of the health situation, terrible working conditions, and immigrant exploitation in America’s meatpacking industry (via Constitutional Rights Foundation). "The Jungle" was so impactful that it started a cultural shift encouraging most people to avoid ground meat. When White Castle opened shop in 1921, people still weren’t very big on processed meat.
Hamburgers were already associated with filth, so White Castle had a huge responsibility to prove that everything about the brand was clean. White is about as clean as can be, so White Castle opted for both the name and color. They even went a step further and made sure the interior features easily cleaned stainless steel, as per Consumerist. Jamie Richardson, a Vice President at White Castle, told Dayton.com that Billy Ingram was so particular about a clean appearance that he’d bring out a manager if Ingram found so much as a speck of dirt on a counter.
You don’t hear of the White Castle co-founder for a reason
White Castle was founded by Edward Waldo Ingram, more popularly known as Billy. He collaborated with Walter Anderson, a science enthusiast and cook who was the culinary force behind the first White Castle (via Kansas State University).
BY 1916, Walter had created the small hamburger buns that eventually became part of the miniature White Castle sliders we know now. Walter created the modern hamburger, as TimeOut reports. He sold his wares out of a non-operating streetcar in downtown Wichita until he partnered with Billy to start White Castle. After establishing the restaurant, Walter came up with the idea of a kitchen assembly line, paper hats, and napkins that shaped the fast food model, as per the Kansas Historical Society.
Despite being the brains — or buns — behind the business, we don’t hear much about Anderson beyond the beginnings of White Castle. That’s because he was a genius of many interests. Soon after White Castle started, his interest in the emerging technology of flight started to grow. Airplanes had only been around for about two decades at this time. White Castle already had a plane so the founders could easily visit their growing slate of restaurants, according to Ohio History Connection. As Walter’s interest in airplanes grew, he decided to sell his share of the company to Ingram in 1933 (via Kansas Historical Society).
The current price of a White Castle burger is equivalent to the 1920s price
The idea of fast food was created to provide customers with a warm, tasty, on-the-go meal in short order. Early on, White Castle’s founders had to balance the price of their goods with the quick turnaround and value that fast food offered to the American population, most of whom hadn’t yet experienced it.
Upon opening in 1921, a White Castle burger cost 5 cents, according to QSR. Despite the spikes of inflation in the early ’20s, the average change in inflation was so small that the brand could afford to keep the price of its menu constant. A White Castle burger still sold for just 10 cents at the turn of the 1950s. Yet, price changes were inevitable. By the ’80s, White Castle prices had risen almost threefold, with a burger selling for 27 cents. As of November 2022, the average price of an original slider, according to Fast Food Menu Prices, is 72 cents.
Yet that’s not the whole story. While it may seem that White Castle’s sliders have gotten increasingly expensive, the actual cost of the slider has not changed dramatically. The inflation rate since 1921 has gone up 1384.04%, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator. In short, that means that the spending power of 5 cents in the first years of White Castle is roughly equal to 74 cents now. Ultimately, your White Castle sliders cost nearly the same as they always have.
A medical student helped White Castle, then refused to eat there again
For Billy Ingram, the clean reputation and fast food production of White Castle just wasn’t enough. They were changing people’s minds about hamburgers, but the wave wasn’t driving sales fast enough. That’s because the nutritional value of sliders was also coming under scrutiny. As per UMN News, hamburgers had already acquired a reputation as seriously unhealthy by the 1930s.
Billy Ingram, ever the businessman, had a potentially unhinged idea: create a research study to prove that White Castle sliders were healthy. But to get such a study underway, Ingram needed a scientist who was interested enough to help. He found a kindred spirit in Dr. Jesse McLendon, a University of Minnesota physiologist (via UMN archives).
Ingram and McLendon’s idea was simple. A human subject would eat only hamburgers for a whole month. McLendon would then investigate how their health had held up. Medical student Bernard Fletcher signed up for it, excitedly downing tens of sliders every day. He got sick of the diet two weeks in but kept eating White Castle hamburgers for 30 days.
As Fletcher’s daughter, Deidre, told UMN News, he strenuously avoided hamburgers after the end of the study. White Castle, on the other hand, touted the results far and wide, showing potential customers that Bernard was perfectly healthy in the end. People readily bought into it, while the brand used Fletcher’s burger misadventure to triple its sales in the next 10 years.
Times were once so hard, White Castle had to try odd burgers
World War II was tough on all businesses, and fast food certainly was no exception. When United States servicemembers began to engage in active combat in World War II, the government had to resort to rationing, as the National World War II Museum reports. Each citizen got a certain number of ration points based on their age, estimated nutritional needs, and whether or not they were deemed to be essential workers. The ration points restricted how much of a certain item a consumer could buy, with the idea that there’d be enough left over for others, especially those in the military.
In 1943, as Cook’s Info notes, beef and other meats joined the growing list of food items to be rationed. In a rather ominous turn, this meant that making hamburgers wasn’t feasible for White Castle anymore. What was a growing fast food restaurant to do?
In a desperate effort to keep the doors open, White Castle tried to make burgers out of everything but ground beef. The brand tried fish burgers, soy burgers, baked beans burgers, and even chili burgers, as per Cook’s Info. Some of these ideas at least kept the doors open, but people weren’t buying the burger reinvention in the long run. Customers were so unenthused that by the end of the war in 1945, White Castle had closed down about one-third of its outlets and raised hamburger prices by 100%.
The White Castle employee who changed the sliders is in the Hall of Fame
A classic sign of the White Castle burgers is the five-hole puncture visible in the burger patties. The holes are probably the easiest way to tell a White Castle slider apart from the competition, and there’s a really good reason why they’re part of the patty. According to Thrillist, the punctures are strategically placed to help the burgers cook faster. Slider patties are steamed rather than grilled, typically with a small pile of onions on top. The structure of the patties allows that steam and onion flavor to permeate the meat. Better still, the burgers made with these holed patties don’t need to be flipped during cooking.
So, where did this genius idea come from? The holed patties were the brainchild of White Castle Cincinnati’s Earl Howell, according to Thrillist. He came up with the idea while trying to grill burgers faster in 1954. The technique was more efficient and tasty than Earl and everyone else expected. Soon enough, all other White Castle restaurants adopted the technique. It became so important that White Castle obtained a patent on that technique for cooking burger patties.
It’s clear that Howell, though he was a seemingly humble hamburger flipper from Cincinnati, single-handedly changed the course of a multi-million dollar food chain with his idea. His reward? A picture in the Employee Hall of Fame at the White Castle headquarters, as company Vice President Jamie Richardson told Thrillist.
Early White Castle hiring was discriminatory
For its first 24 years of business, the only people who were allowed to work at White Castle stands looked quite a lot like its founders. That is, they were white men. Women couldn’t work at the stands and only a few could find jobs in the growing chain’s head office. The only public-facing worker for White Castle who was also a woman was Ella Louise Agniel. As per the Journal of Restaurant & Foodservice Marketing, Agniel traveled the country to publicize White Castle sliders, focusing on women and children.
For Black people, the "white" in White Castle was also an undeniable reference to the preferred race of early employees. According to Cook’s Info, Black customers were often barred from White Castle dining rooms as well. It wasn’t until protests and a New York-based boycott in 1963 that the company began hiring Black workers.
Billy’s stereotypes began to crack apart under the pressure of World War II. In many communities, men left their jobs to join the armed serviced, meaning that there was a massive loss of workers from White Castle. The company wasn’t used to handling the pressure of a worker shortage and simultaneous recruitment, so management was forced to expand its scope, at least when it came to gender (via Cook’s Info).
White Castle’s Crave Crate has more than a week’s worth of calories
White Castle is the first known fast food restaurant to offer takeout services with Billy Ingram’s Buy ’em By the Sack campaign in 1927, according to a 2021 press release. The campaign name was taken from the slogan coined by Walter Anderson, which encouraged customers to buy sliders in bulk at a reduced price. The strategy has remained effective, pushing White Castle to continually repackage its sliders into newer, cuter boxes. Instead of just slider bags, White Castle restaurants now sell a Crave Case, Crave Clutch, and Crave Crate, as the White Castle menu boasts.
White Castle has long left abandoned the initial need to prove how healthy these slider cases are. It also isn’t big on putting nutritional information at the forefront. The 100-slider Crave Crase of White Castle’s most nutritious offering, for example, has about 14,000 calories in it. With an average requirement of 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day for an adult (via Verywell Fit), a Crave Crate has as many calories as the average person would need for an entire week.
All of this eye-popping nutritional information is reportedly public, but White Castle appears to deal in technicalities because that data is contained in a crowded, barely visible nutritional information table that takes a bit of detective work to find on the White Castle website.
White Castle didn’t offer vegetarian options for almost a century
For its first 93 years of business, White Castle simply didn’t cater to vegetarians, except for the time the restaurant was pushed to do so by a global war, the brand was all about beef and seemed to have little intention of exploring any other options with its burgers. There was likely little push for meat-free options from customers, too, as vegetarianism in the U.S. was only popular among unconventional hippie types for much of the 20th century, as per the New York Historical Society. Vegetarians and vegans simply didn’t make up a large enough sector of the market for White Castle to care.
Things began to change in the 21st century. White Castle made one of its largest publicity moves of all time in 2004, when it featured in the comedy "Harold & Kumar go to White Castle." Kal Penn, who played Kumar, is vegetarian. This mean that food workers on set had to go the extra mile to craft veggie burgers for him to consume onscreen, as he told Business Insider.
For every vegetarian who wasn’t a film actor, though, it was tough luck for a few more years. White Castle finally saw the changing tide and officially released veggie sliders for sale in December 2014 (via Quartz). Sliders made from Impossible Beef known as "Impossible Sliders" debuted in 2018.
White Castle once recalled its frozen burgers because of food poisoning
Back in 1931, White Castle innovated the sale of frozen burgers, as per Refrigerated and Frozen Foods. The idea came from customers who used to pack burgers on dry ice and send them across the country. By the late ’80s, the frozen version of the burgers had gotten so popular that White Castle had to move them into retail groceries, where they fast became one of America’s best-selling frozen food brands.
For a company built on strict cleanliness and high quality, one would’ve thought that White Castle would soar without the messy quality control problems of the frozen food world. Boy, were we wrong.
A quality assurance test at an external laboratory found proof that a batch frozen White Castle sliders may have been contaminated by listeria, bacteria that can cause an infection that can then lead to miscarriages and stillbirths, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The evidence of contamination was solid enough for the brand to voluntarily recall that entire batch of frozen sliders. It also halted all shipping from the factory where the bacteria was detected and increased sanitation measures for its frozen food production, according to ABC News.
A robot may have built your White Castle slider
White Castle has come a long way from building the first fast-food assembly line (via Consumerist) to investing in high-tech burger-making. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the chain sped up its technology investments. Its kitchens had to deal with fewer people while also making burgers at a fast rate. Machinery was the best solution.
White Castle partnered with Pasadena’s Miso Robotics as the first fast-food chain to test Flippy, which consists of AI technology that helps robots flip burgers, cook fries, and help out with other repetitive kitchen tasks. According to USA Today, Flippy got into a bit of a mess in 2018 when it started to churn out burgers at a faster rate than the human kitchen workers could manage.
White Castle still took a chance on an improved version of Flippy in 2020, according to Tech Crunch. In early 2022, it put the upgraded version, Flippy 2, in 100 additional White Castle restaurants (via TODAY). Depending on where you order, there’s about a chance that your next White Castle slider will be made by a Flippy.