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  • Writer's pictureSarah Royal

The Meaty Mecca of Suburbia

How White Castle transformed the hamburger and became America’s first fast food chain.

At the start of the Roaring Twenties, nearly 150 years after the country’s founding, there was still no such thing as a distinctly American cuisine. Different immigrant groups lived side by side, but despite allusions to the melting pot, they stuck by their own ethnic dishes. Polish sausages, Italian pizza, Jewish deli fare — what would it take to bring them together? The answer: a flattened pile of meat between two slices of bread, marketed with vague allusions of grandeur and purity. It would take White Castle, established in 1921, more than a decade before the first McDonald’s.

The story of the famous five-holed slyder begins with a Wichita, Kansas line cook named J. Walter “Walt” Anderson. Frustrated one day by a slow cooking meatball, Anderson purportedly smashed it with a spatula, birthing a miniature burger. Soon afterward, he opened his own burger joint and sold his flattened meatballs smothered in onions (the way his customers liked them best) between steamy buns for five cents apiece. Many folks would carry out a few at a time, so Anderson adopted the slogan “Buy ’Em By The Sack,” and his customers complied.

Hamburgers were a relatively new thing at the time, and decidedly low-class. Most people suspected that the only reason one would grind up beef would be to hide extraneous parts of animals (or worse) inside. Hamburgers had no place on a respectable family’s dinner table, and roadside stands like Anderson’s attracted mostly factory workers, newsboys, and transients. As David Gerard Hogan points out in his 1997 history of the chain, Selling ’Em By the Sack, the general public steered clear of these stands, assuming the burgers were “unsanitary” and “unseemly” and that other vices must be “lurking nearby. 

The public had good reason to fear meat. Just 15 years before, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had exposed the deplorable conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry, asserting (among other things) that when you bit into a burger you might be gnoshing on some unfortunate packing worker who happened to slip and tumble into the grinder. Meat sales fell dramatically, and the public outcry led directly to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Later works and studies of the meat industry supported The Jungle’s assertions. A 1933 expose by consumer rights activists Frederick J. Schlink and Arthur Kallet, “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs,” reported that most meat sold to the public belonged in a garbage can, and Schlink’s subsequent “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary” warned consumers about chemicals added to meat to hide the smell of spoilage. Marketing hamburgers on a large scale would not only take some intense image decontamination, it would require a truly clean product. No respectable person was touching ground beef until it was proven to them that it wasn’t filled with nasty bits.

Against those odds, Walt Anderson’s burger shack was still plugging along. Those customers he did have were enamored with the unique flavor and style of his offerings as well as, no doubt, the five-cent price tag. When Anderson went to lease an additional property for the business, his real-estate broker, Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, became a partner, and became the driving force behind their new burger business.

Ingram understood the need to change the public perception of ground beef. He chose the words “White” for purity and “Castle” for strength. He modeled the distinctive white-turreted restaurant blueprint loosely on Chicago’s Water Tower, a nationally-recognized symbol of steadfastness that had been the only public structure left standing after the 1871 Great Fire.

Ingram was obsessive about developing rules and practices to ensure consistent delivery of high-quality burgers. He ordered only the best cuts of shoulder meat (commonly referred to today as “ground chuck”) from a respected local butcher. White Caste workers wore perfectly-pressed white uniforms — body odor, bad breath, and dirty fingernails were verboten. Inside every White Castle restaurant, five stools overlooked the grill, where customers could watch their meat prepared right in front of them. Decades before Morgan Spurlock and his “Super-Size Me” shtick, Ingram enlisted a college student to live on nothing but White Castle hamburgers for 13 weeks. According to company publicity, the college student apparently was in good health and eating 20 burgers a day by the end of the experiment.

Ingram’s meat makeover transformed the burger into bonafide American food. For the first time, middle-class families of all nationalities could dine out affordably. Copycats sprung up all over the country, with names like Royal Castle, Little Kastle, Little Palace, Little Crown, White Tower, White Clock, and White Knight Nickel Sandwich. By the end of the 1920’s, the name ‘White Castle’ had become a generic term for a fast food burger joint, like ‘Kleenex’ or ‘Rollerblades’ would become for their respective products.

But in the decades following, the reverse became true. White Castle went from generic to kitsch, from every-burger to a cult icon. This, of course, is what the founders were after all along. As early as 1925 White Castle cultivated its fan base with a company newsletter called “Hot Hamburger,” as Ingram believed he could cultivate fervent loyalty by bringing customers into the culture of the White Castle burger. Hogan claims that during the 1950s, when the interstate highway system and a country on the move took many from Castle areas to non-Castle areas, people packed burgers in dry ice and shipped them to their friends who missed them so.

Still, as much as White Castle united the nation under the fast food flag, their trademark “slyder” is not for everyone — a fact conceded by even the company’s marketing director. “It’s this incredible fusion of meat and bun and steam and onion,” rhapsodizes Richardson, “certainly not for the faint of heart.” It’s precisely that fusion, the inability to distinguish between the different ingredients, that probably accounts for why many people consider a slider nothing more than a mushy little burger of dubious origin.

White Castle doesn’t mind if you think its burgers are kitschy and low-grade. That’s why they authorized the production of stoner flick Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. It’s why the company created a Craver’s Hall of Fame to induct customers who are exemplary of the aforementioned fanaticism. It’s why White Castle celebrates Valentines Day with red tablecloths, tuxedoed servers, and flowery centerpieces and requires dinner reservations. “There’s so much pretentiousness in the world,” says Richardson. “In an opportunity like this we can just laugh at ourselves and celebrate the oddity and quirkiness of who we are, and invite others to do the same.”

For all of the early fastidiousness, most people today see White Castle as anything but the pillar and pinnacle of quality burgers — a near complete flip-flop from the original intention. But like Richardson, Ingram would probably have laughed about it, too.

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