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

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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.

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  1. great title to this post..

  2. great title to this post..

  3. I remember my first trip to White Castle: I kept sending back the burgers, telling them to hold the onions (true!)…

  4. Nothing like a sack of sliders. They started it and they’ll probably be around longer than the others. Once fast-food hamburgers are made illegal, sliders will be the only ones small enough to effectively smuggle.

  5. mmmmm…..Burgers……mmmmmm

  6. Interestingly, the guy who started White Castle invented the hamburger bun. Before that they were served on hard dinner rolls or bread slices.

  7. The home office is in Columbus, not far from the Arena District – named after the sports arena that the taxpayers for some reason voted to pay for.

    If you are in town during the summer months, try to hit a Clippers game (Yankees AAA farm team) on “Dime-a-Slider Night” where a buck will buy you 10 White Castle hamburgers.

    Box seats are $9 and general admission is about half of that.

  8. Who the hell wants to watch the Clippers? Yeesh.

  9. I can only surmise that the med student who ate nothing but Whities for a while wasn’t married. And didn’t have a girlfriend. At least by the end of the experiment.

    My personal favorite moment in the history of Chateau Blanc was the promotion that gave you a car air freshener with the purchase of a sack.

  10. Lest we forget, White Castle also coined the single greatest slogan in advertising history:

    “Hamburgers for breakfast? Why not?”

  11. Where does Wetson’s fit in chronologically?

  12. Brian Doherty–

    Where’s the title of the post from?

  13. Dear uncultured—It is a reference-by-absence to White Castle through (my memory of) a lyric from the Beastie Boys song “The New Style”–the line before the line that makes up the title of the entry is (as I recall) “I chill at White Castle ’cause it’s the best” And I live in California. I hope there are enough qualifiers in this that the Beastie’s boys won’t descend en masse if I’m misremembering the lyric or song.

  14. I know they were just an imitator but it damn near broke my heart when the Little Taverns went out of business in Maryland. They were like little time machines taking you back to America’s radio days.

    And the burgers had a unique flavor. Whether that was a good thing or not was a matter of taste.

  15. Hmmm … went there once while a grad student
    in Chicago … remain confused to this day how
    they remain in business. I wonder this about
    Harvey’s in Canada too … just awful burgers.

    Jeff

  16. Worst. Burgers. Ever.

  17. In Milwaukee, there was a knock-off of the Castle called White Tower.

    http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/archstories/restaurants/fast_food.asp

    I avoided it, as I LOATHE onions. The Tower is gone, but George Webb has been serving sliders (w/ or w/o onions, which can be raw or fried) since 1948. (Great breakfasts, too.) The 24-hour location in my neighborhood is a weirdness magnet, but I live secure in the knowledge that artery clogging goodness is mere minutes away.

    Kevin

  18. neb_okla

    The home office is in Columbus, not far from the Arena District – named after the sports arena that the taxpayers for some reason voted to pay for.

    Excuse me, but we did not! While they used eminent domain and city money to clear the site, they finally got the hint after three different ballot issues to build the arena failed.

    http://www.sfo.com/~csuppes/NHL/ColumbusBlueJackets/

    Arena Financing — Privately by Nationwide Insurance Enterprise and the Dispatch Printing Company.

    BTW, the taxpayers didn’t pay for the soccer stadium, either- and Franklin County owns and profits from the Clippers.

    Cow-lumbus–Hotbed of libertarian thought?!

  19. Why do White Castle hamburgers have five holes in them?

    That’s how many shots it took to kill the rat!

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