Q&A: White Castle’s Lisa Ingram on the business behind the crave

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From the July 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

At 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, cars line the White Castle drive-through at Second and High streets in the Short North. A mid-sized company sedan, a middle-aged woman driving a Saturn SUV and two suntanned men in a contractor’s truck each place orders and drive away quickly with bags of 2-by-2-inch Sliders.

The young African-American woman running the window is pleasant and moves the line of cars smoothly through. When asked, she says she likes working for the company, mainly because of her managers, coworkers and the customers. She’s easy-going with a warm smile ready for every driver in her line.

It’s the type of service you’d expect in a local diner, though it’s rare in the city’s fast-food drive-throughs. The experience confirms White Castle System President Lisa Ingram’s assessment of the culture in her family’s 93-year-old business.

“That’s really the secret to our success. No matter where you go in this company, whether it’s an individual Castle or a plant or here in the home office, it feels like a family,” says Ingram. She credits managers—the majority of whom have been promoted from entry-level positions—with fostering a supportive, family-like atmosphere for employees and between the staff and White Castle customers.

The company has a reputation for making lifers of its employees. Of its 500 restaurant managers in the region, 99 percent started behind the counter and moved their way up, a rarity in the fast-food industry.

“It’s a wonderful testament to our company. The average tenure of our general manager is 21 years,” says Ingram. White Castle’s longest-serving employee, Elaine Miseta, retired after 67 years as administrative assistant to three generations of company presidents: founder Billy Ingram, his son Edgar, and his grandson Bill.

Ingram worked her way to the presidency of the company cofounded by her great-grandfather in 1921. A student of business and marketing, Ingram found professional inspiration in her forefathers, including her dad, Bill Ingram, White Castle System chairman and CEO. Today, she oversees companywide operations including the frozen food, meat processing, bakery and manufacturing divisions, as well as the iconic company’s 400 porcelain-steel stores throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

Congratulations on your new frozen food facility—what are your goals for taking White Castle’s frozen foods into new markets?

We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to serve military bases around the world—this third plant allows us to have the capacity to do that.

How did the company’s restaurant division perform in 2013?

In 2013, we saw a lot of signs of improvement, signs of strength. We launched our first new permanent menu item in many years: our new grilled chicken sandwich. That was a great success for us.

We also had our Crave Mobiles come out in 2013. Those are lots of fun and they’re getting lots of requests for people to use them for parties, for tailgates, for charitable events. We’re really excited to see what kind of business those can generate and how we can get more products to our customers in places where we don’t currently operate restaurants.

What’s your 2014 performance outlook?

Unfortunately, if you had asked me this question in January, I would have had a different response. The winter was certainly challenging for us. Most of our markets are in the Midwest and the East Coast.

When you have a lot of snow, people don’t want to leave their houses, so that makes it more challenging to have them go out and visit the restaurants. But since the snow has melted, February and beyond have been really good, and we’ve had some nice new product introductions…Things are looking up, we’re very excited about 2014.

How do you balance those new item introductions with your core menu?

Whenever we come out with a new item, many of our Cravers are very excited about trying those new items. There is a large percentage, as well, that says ‘Don’t touch my 2-by-2-inch beef Slider.’ So as long as we don’t change the original Slider, (we) keep that core. We have every intention of keeping that product as our centerpiece.

Are all of White Castle’s new sandwiches the same size as a Slider?

Pretty much everything in our brand is centered around a 2-inch square burger. If we come out with a new chicken sandwich, it’s served on the bun. The one caveat is our new waffle sandwiches. They’re not on the bun, but they’re still on a 2-by-2-inch small mini-waffle.

Many restaurants today include a White Castle-influenced Slider offering—what does it say about a fast-food establishment when it becomes part of the wider culinary culture?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we’re very flattered that everybody wants to try and have Sliders on their menus. That helps, sort of, the recognition.

But, I will be biased and say I don’t think there’s another place you can get a White Castle Slider. Our Slider is the original.

What percentage of revenue/future growth does the frozen foods division represent?

We’re very excited about this division. Currently, it represents almost 20 percent of our sales. It’s a great way for us to expand. We’re able to reach all 50 states with that product.

When did White Castle decide against franchising restaurants and what was the impetus behind that decision?

We have always been very interested in ensuring a quality product. That’s part of the reason why we own our own bakeries. We have two bakeries, we have three meat-processing facilities, and three frozen food divisions, one of which we just did the grand opening for (on May 1). We do that to ensure that we are delivering a quality product to our consumers, from the buns that we bake to the meat patties that we serve.

Franchising is a similar sort of decision. We very much believe in having a great customer experience in our restaurants. (To) franchise and outsource that to somebody else, we weren’t comfortable that we would be able to deliver the same quality that we could (in company-owned restaurants). There are certainly very good franchisees out there, but we wanted to make sure that we were keeping that within the family to ensure that we would have consistent quality across all our locations.

Did the company ever franchise its restaurants?

We’ve never franchised, but we do talk about it often. We get a lot of requests that people would love to have a franchise. It is something that we certainly visit every once in a while, but it’s not something that we’re interested in right now.

What makes Columbus a good base for White Castle System operations?

2014 marks the 80th year that we have been in Columbus. We love Columbus, it’s a wonderful town. It’s very collaborative, it’s very open, it’s very smart (and) we have great team members here. It’s a great place to live and work. It also is centrally located to many of our markets, so for all of the cities we have to fly to, we can get direct flights. That, from a logistics standpoint makes it very easy.

All of our operations in terms of our bakeries and meat plants and frozen facilities are also located in either Ohio or Indiana or Kentucky. Again, that’s good for logistical purposes—being at the center of the heartland and being able to ship our products where we need to in a relatively short amount of time.

Why is breakfast suddenly a competitive market in your industry?

Breakfast, I think has always been competitive, with the coffee wars of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ and Starbucks. Right now, it’s very much in the media with everybody focused in on the food that we eat. I’m particularly biased because I think we have the best breakfast sandwich out of any of them. I’d put it up against McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, any of them.

How long have you been serving breakfast?

We have been serving breakfast for 25 years. It’s been a long time. I would say probably in the last five-to-six years we have been more strategic in marketing it and targeting to grow our breakfast department.

What measures have you taken to insulate White Castle from rising corn and beef prices?

I wish there was a silver bullet for this one. We’ve seen record-high beef costs this year. It’s been very, very challenging. Certainly our purchasing department is always looking for ways to save us money without sacrificing quality because that’s not something we would do.

Beef is at an all-time high, and it’s not projected to come down. We’ve been pretty vocal about renewable fuel standards and how we feel that has impacted our beef price.

How do you feel, being the face of political issues for White Castle?

Jamie (Richardson, vice president of government and shareholder relations) is more of our political face because he’s very knowledgeable on all of those things. Certainly from White Castle’s standpoint, we want to be able to get our story out because our story is unique. It’s different from McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King.

We’re a family-owned business started in 1921, we’ve been here (in Columbus) since 1934, we own all of our restaurants. We really care about our team members and we want to be able to be around for another 90 years. So, on those issues that really impact us, we’re going to talk about it, where it makes sense.

What risk do patent trolls represent to White Castle’s technological development?

Patent trolls are very challenging for us. We want to be able to utilize technology to allow our customers to have a better interaction with us and not have to not use technology because we’re worried about getting sued or getting a frivolous letter from one of these patent trolls—who may or may not have invented the technology that we’re actually using.

We’re hoping that Congress will be able to implement some help for us there.

Aside from the quality of your products and customer service, what role has marketing played in making White Castle a long-lived, successful brand?

We have a great story to tell. From a marketing standpoint we just need to make sure that we’re getting out there and breaking through all the clutter, which is a little more challenging given our size relative to our competitors, who are much larger and have much larger marketing budgets. We have to be very strategic in how we go after our customers.

I think our marketing team has been pretty successful. We have a lot of great brand awareness and a lot of really happy customers out there who come to visit us.

The brand seems to have made a real cultural impact.

People have referred to us as a cult-like brand, which I think is certainly very flattering. We attribute that to what we call memorable moments. It’s not just the food—obviously the food is a huge component of it—but it’s also the experience the customers get when you come inside.

If you walk into our Castles as a regular, it’s very, very common that when you walk in we’ll know your name, we’ll know your order, we’ll be able to have it ready for you before you even come to the counter. That type of loyalty from our customers and our team members really creates a great experience.

The other thing that’s really fun about our brand is customers want to have it at their special events. They want us at tailgates, they want us at parties, they want us at their weddings and at their funerals. That’s really a testament to the longevity of the brand and the great impact that we have.

White Castle receives requests to cater wakes?

Yes, we do….To be such a huge part of that person’s life that they want to have our product at their wake or at their funeral is something that we’re very honored to be able to do. It’s a wonderful thing.

How do your consumers influence your brand and product decisions?

We think that the best form of advertising is our customers and the marketing that they do and the advocacy that they will do. The saying around here is, if you’re having a bad day, go read our Facebook page because there’s just so much love out there from our customers about White Castle.

(We ask) how can we continue to foster that love and foster that ‘crave’?

Do you visit the company Facebook when you’re having a down day?

Yeah, if I’m having a bad day I either go look on Facebook, or if I have the time I’ll go work in a Castle. I love to be behind the counter, it’s one of my favorite places to be, actually. Customers come in, they’re very excited to be there, and to be able to give them this product that they’re clamoring for is very uplifting.

Tell us about the first time you were behind the counter of a White Castle?

I went down to Louisville, KY, to be trained. This was when I first came back in 2000. I had a great time…we had a great crew down there. I love doing it. It’s a lot of fun to be behind the counter and make the product. I always try to keep up with (the crew). They’re so much faster because they do it all the time. My goal whenever I go in is to not slow down their speed of service.

In what ways did your family’s business inspire you to study business and marketing?

I have always loved math. …I thought that I would go into business. The other thing I thought that I would do was be a lawyer.

I ended up picking SMU, they had a great business school. I really wanted to get out of Ohio and go experience someplace else, because I thought I might end up here later in life. I’ve always loved business. I’m a very analytical person.

Growing up, was it expected that you would go into the family business?

There wasn’t any pressure to join the family business. Which I think is great, because then you know that the family members that are here are very passionate and they want to be here. Not because they’re expected to be here, but because they really love it and want to be here.

Can you talk about why your family conducts professional development for family members that join the company?

The expectation for any family member to come into the business is that one, there’s an opening and two, that you’re qualified. Those two are very, very clear to all the family members. You need to have the qualities to be able work here and there needs to be an opening. Then when you’re here, you’re expected to work really, really hard.

I feel so very fortunate to have all of my cousins and all of my siblings that work here. Every single one of them is excessively passionate about the brand, and they are very, very hard working.

There’s nobody that’s in here that’s sort of working half-time and getting paid full-time or anything ridiculous like that. Which is just such a wonderful example that they all set for all the team members here, because every single one of them is really passionate about what they do.

How many family members do you currently work with?

There are nine fourth generation, which is what I’m in. There’s two third generation.

I have four kids and my husband (Greg Guy, CEO of Air Force One) owns a family business as well. Both of us are very in-sync that we would like for them to do whatever they would like to do. If they want to earn the chance to work at White Castle or another family business, then they need to be qualified and they need to have passion about it.

We’ll see if that comes to fruition for (our children) or any of the 29 fifth-generation family members.

They’re going to have to compete against whoever else is qualified to come into the business, and I think that’s the best thing for the business: really making sure that every single family member is committed, wants to be here and is qualified to be here.