Lisa Ingram, White Castle: We've done it before— we can do it again

Bob Vitale
Lisa Ingram, White Castle

Lisa Ingram’s great-grandfather led White Castle through the Great Depression and World War II. Her grandfather faced competition from fast-food upstarts such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Her father weathered four economic downturns.

At a 99-year-old company that’s proud of its history, Ingram has found herself thinking even more this year of her ancestors and predecessors as CEO. Covid-19 is unlike anything White Castle, its employees and its customers have faced before.

“I definitely did think about how those times felt,” Ingram says. “You can look back and say we made the right decisions and have a brand that the customers desired through those events. That gave me comfort that we can survive this. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again if we make the right decisions and keep our values in mind.”

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Since March, those decisions have included heeding employee concerns and staying closed to indoor dining even as states eased restrictions. White Castle sales continue through drive-throughs, delivery and carryout. 

“Our team members told us they would prefer that we don’t do [indoor dining] right now,” Ingram says. “In hindsight, as cases have been rising, that seems like an appropriate decision to help keep them safe.”

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The values Ingram touts—communication and loyalty that extend both ways—have paid off in these trying times, she says. About 9,500 of 10,000 workers are connected to a company app, which made it easier to keep people informed of safety directives. The average 21-year tenure of White Castle general managers kept trust high. 

White Castle cut executive pay but offered restaurant workers what it called a Griddle Gratitude Bonus.

Ingram says it’s hard to compare 2020 with the crises in White Castle’s past, but she hopes her reaction is on par.

“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility and tremendous desire to keep the company stable, take care of our team members and make sure everybody’s safe,” she says.

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.