Century of Progress
Founded in 1921, White Castle ranks among the oldest restaurant concepts in the country. Other chains can claim earlier start dates - A&W dates to a soda stand in 1919 and Boudin Bakery of San Francisco dates to 1849, inspiring the name of the city’s football team (or so we’d like to think).
But White Castle grew to be much larger than these brands, ranking among the 100 largest restaurant chains at the time of its centennial. As such, White Castle’s history is lush with innovations, challenges and timeless lessons for restaurant operators. Here, we cover some of our most notable takeaways from the storied brand’s history.
White Castle’s name, unit designs, employee uniforms and open store designs were all meant to convey safety and inspire confidence among potential customers. In 1921, consumers were hesitant to eat ground beef, and the restaurant industry, still in its nascent years, didn’t necessarily have a built-up reputation for operators to rely on. So, safety and cleanliness were an important part of the brand’s business model. Restaurants’ emphasis on cleanliness has never really gone away as it has remained a top concern for consumers.
Success Breeds Imitation
White Castle may have been the first small-burger chain with branding meant to convey safety, but it certainly wasn’t the last. As we’ve touched on before, White Tower Hamburger, Krystal, and Royal Castle, to name only a few, emerged in the years following White Castle’s initial success.
It's Not Just About Restaurant Trends
White Castle’s signature slider kept the company’s sole focus from 1921 until World War II, when beef rations forced the chain to innovate by bringing on hot dogs and fried eggs. It’s an early example of an important lesson for restauranteurs - some trends, challenges and opportunities in the restaurant industry are tied to current events that don’t directly relate to the restaurant industry. In addition to White Castle’s menu innovation, we could consider how The Columbia’s evolution was influenced by the growth and collapse of Tampa’s cigar industry, or how Norman Brinker’s strategy with Chili’s was influenced by the Baby Boomer generation entering adulthood. Of course, operators of the COVID-19 era don’t need to be reminded of the way world events can disrupt operations.
Menu Categories Get Redefined, Even the Big Ones
White Castle launched the fast-food burger category with an emphasis on sliders, and the previously mentioned imitators helped the overall category grow fairly large. But starting in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, many fast-food burger chains that would soon dominate the industry emerged with larger burgers. This includes McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King, and a handful of others. Then in the 2000s, the burger category was again revolutionized by fast-casual better-burger brands like Five Guys, Shake Shack, Smashburger and BurgerFi.
Off-Premise Is Always Evolving
Another innovation often credited to White Castle is the concept of takeout, which the original slider chain introduced in 1927 before upgrading its packaging for to-go orders in 1931. Decades later, the chain added drive-thrus in the 1980s. Around the chain’s centennial, it was testing ghost kitchens, with one such location in Florida quickly selling out. This ongoing trend of off-premise service could be looked at in a few ways. First, the distance between where food is prepared and where it is consumed has continually grown due to takeout and delivery services. Additionally, the distance between the customer placing an order and the employee receiving the order has similarly grown thanks to phone calls, online ordering, mobile ordering and more.