Monday, July 16, 2007

White Castle microwaveable burgers

The White Castle chain has never achieved the mass of McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's. But it’s older than the others, was the first burger chain to sell a million burgers, and a billion burgers, and has very loyal fans; so it must be doing something right. Maybe several things.

The company was founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, when entrepreneur Billy Ingram partnered with cook Walter Anderson, and was an early example of successful fast food marketing. While the White Castle company is based on four earlier hamburger stands owned by Anderson, the name was chosen by Ingram to distinguish it from other, less healthy fast food outlets that many consumers were reluctant to visit. "White" was chosen for its connotations of purity, while "Castle" was selected to suggest stability and permanence. At the time, Americans were hesitant to eat ground beef after Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle publicized poor sanitation practices in the meat packing industry.

Ingram and Anderson set out to change the public's perception of the cleanliness of the industry. They constructed small buildings with hygienically white exteriors and stainless steel interiors, and outfitted their employees with spotless uniforms. Their first restaurants in Wichita were a success, and the company branched out into other midwestern markets, starting in 1923 with Omaha. White Castle Building No. 8, built in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1936, was an example of the chain's prefabricated porcelain buildings. It measured 28 feet by 28 feet and was modeled after the Chicago Water Tower, with octagonal buttresses, crenellated towers, and a parapet wall.

Anderson had developed an efficient method for cooking hamburgers, using freshly ground beef and fresh onions. The ground beef was formed into balls by machine, eighteen to a pound. The balls were placed upon a hot grill and topped with a handful of fresh thinly shredded onion. Then they were flipped so that the onion was under the ball. The ball was then squashed down, turning the ball into a very thin patty. The bottom of the bun was then placed atop the cooking patty with the other half of the bun on top of that so that the juices and steam from the beef and the onion would permeate the bun.

After grilling, a slice of dill pickle was inserted before serving. Management decreed that any additives, such as ketchup or mustard, were to be added by the customer. Anderson's method is not in use by the chain today, having changed when the company switched from using fresh beef and fresh onion to small, frozen square patties which are cooked atop a bed of dehydrated onions laid out on a grill. The heat and steam rises up from the grill, through the onions. In 1949, five holes in the patty were added to facilitate quick and thorough cooking. The very thin patties are not flipped throughout this process. This "steam grilled" method is unique among major fast food restaurants.

Since fast food was unknown in the United States in that era, there was no infrastructure to support the business, as is common with today's chain restaurants. The company established centralized bakeries and warehouses, and subsidiaries to make paper products, and the movable, prefabricated structures that could be assembled at any White Castle restaurant site.

Ingram's business savvy, argues David Gerard Hogan in Selling 'Em By the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food, not only was responsible for White Castle's success, but for the popularization of the hamburger. For example, to counter charges that burgers were not healthy, Ingram paid several young men to dress as doctors and eat White Castle hamburgers, the idea being that if doctors ate it, it had to be healthy. This same logic led Ingram to fund a study in which a University of Minnesota medical student went on a ten-week diet of nothing but White Castles and water. The experiment, though dubious, yielded results and increased legitimacy for the hamburger in general and White Castle in particular.

In 1933, Ingram bought out Anderson, and the following year the company moved corporate headquarters to Columbus, Ohio. The company remains privately held and its US restaurants are company-owned. Co-founder Billy Ingram was followed as head of the firm by his son E. W. Ingram, Jr. and grandson E. W. Ingram, III.

In concurrence with its 80th anniversary in 2001, White Castle started its Cravers' Hall of Fame. "Cravers" are inducted annually based on stories that are submitted about them. Between five and ten stories have been chosen each year with a grand total of 56 stories being selected through the 2006 induction class. That is less than 1% of the total stories submitted since the inception of the Cravers' Hall of Fame.

"The Crave" is depicted in radio and television spots as a sort of addiction to White Castle burgers. An individual afflicted by "The Crave" can only be satisfied by slyders. While "The Crave" marketing strategy is presented in a light hearted, tongue-in-cheek fashion, many loyal patrons of the restaurant contend they do become afflicted by "The Crave" from time to time.

White Castle's innovative approach to preparing and presenting its hamburgers created a loyal following that, over time, developed slang used today by patrons and restaurant staff to communicate an order or otherwise discuss White Castle products. For example, a customer ordering a "sack of six with both", will receive six burgers with both ketchup and mustard (this is also a reference to White Castle's habit of keeping three bottles of condiments at hand for the burgers: ketchup, mustard, and a combination of the two—or "both"). (This does not apply everywhere because restaurants in many regions only serve the burgers plain, allowing customers to add condiments.) In 1994 White Castle was granted a U.S. trademark on the term "slyders" which was a common nickname for its product. An individual who consumes six or more "slyders" in one sitting earns the distinction "slyder pilot."

It is argued that the size, construction and cooking method of White Castle burgers is unique among fast food products. Therefore, it is conceivable that "The Crave", in fact, is a specific yearning for the attributes possessed only by slyders. Another possible explanation is that affordability and convenience of White Castle burgers makes it an easy choice.

White Castle has fewer than 400 restaurants in the US, compared to umpteen gazillion Mickey Dee’s; but you can buy frozen boxes of slyders in supermarkets, for heating in your microwave oven. You can go from freezer to nuker to mouth in less than a minute. That’s FAST food.

some info from Wikipedia

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn, Michael! You can make a guy hungry even at 9:55 AM Pacific time! You should be a food writer!