…But I'm Fly at Fatburger When I'm Way Out West


A charming little New York Times piece by indefatigible appreciator of American consumer culture's little innovations, Paul Lukas, about White Castle. The home of the swallow 'em whole little burger is–and I didn't know this until reading the article–the original fast-food hamburger chain, even if Mr. Kroc's problem child, McDonald's, has more of the cultural-historical juice.

For example, Morgan Spurlock used McDonald's as his whipping boy in his recent hit documentary Super Size Me, where he ate nothing but McDonald's for a month and got his tummy aw upset. Turns out White Castle got there first as well. An excerpt from Lukas's article:

Back in 1930, the chain arranged for a medical student to live for 13 weeks on nothing but its hamburgers, and water. Edgar Waldo Ingram, one of White Castle's founders, later asserted, "The student maintained good health throughout the three-month period and was eating 20 to 24 hamburgers a day during the last few weeks."

That stunt is just one instance among many in which White Castle was ahead of its time. Few people seem to realize that White Castle was America's original fast-food chain: its first outlet opened in 1921, 27 years ahead of McDonald's.
….David Gerard Hogan, author of "Selling 'Em by the Sack" (New York University Press, 1997), which details the chain's history, {says]… "People don't realize they pulled off one of the greatest marketing feats of the century ? up there with Bill Gates and Microsoft."
[Ingram] was fanatical about cleanliness and hygiene, and his masterstroke was to have White Castle operators grind their own meat from high-grade cuts of beef in public view, to demonstrate that it was fresh.

It worked. By 1930, White Castle outlets were scattered across the Midwest, inspiring a legion of imitators, and the hamburger was being described by the president of the National Restaurant Association as "America's food."

It was around that time that Mr. Ingram pioneered the promotion of takeout service, leading to White Castle's iconic slogan, "Buy 'em by the sack." He also turned White Castle into the first vertically integrated restaurant operation, creating one subsidiary to build the restaurants and another to make the company's paper products. Innovations like those laid the groundwork for the suburban fast-food explosion of the 1950's.

As a Southerner in my youth, I had a lot more exposure to White Castle knockoff Krystal's, but I'm always ready to raise a greasy slider to the innovators who feed America's (sometimes dark) hungers in newer, cheaper, easier ways.