Meet the Ohio family legacy behind White Castle's famous sliders

Jess Deyo
Columbus CEO
White Castle's 100th birthday slider cake.

A perfectly square two-inch beef patty steam-grilled on a bed of onions, placed delicately on a bakery fresh bun with one perfect pickle. That unchanged recipe at White Castle has proven to be timeless, but the real secret to success lies within the generations of family members that keep founder Billy Ingram’s vision alive.

There are two things to know about Ingram: He valued consistency, and he didn’t bother much with the opinions of others, according to family. Those two traits arguably served as fuel for the creation of White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921.

The launch of the new burger joint came after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—a 1906 novel that negatively highlighted the American meat-packing industry. Still, Ingram and partner Walter Anderson created an offer hard to pass up: a perfectly steamed hamburger for just a few cents.

Motivational speaker Jon Petz was invited to host White Castle's 100th birthday party on May 26.

The name White Castle was intended to erase the negative stigma around beef, said Jamie Richardson, 55, White Castle’s current vice president. The word “white” meant clean, and “castle” was meant to denote strength and permanence. White Castle was here to stay and is even credited by many with the creation of fast food.

Jamie Richardson, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

So, what could you get at a White Castle in the 1920s? The company’s signature sliders, for five cents apiece, coffee, Coca-Cola and apple pie. Thanks to Ingram’s belief that everyone deserved a night out, the simple menu proved to be a hit.

The slider company introduces carryout 

By the end of the twenties, White Castle was beginning to grow, and Ingram wanted to see it through. Carryout was introduced in 1927, arguably a first for the industry, Richardson says. It was yet another move for the working class, who could now get their sliders in a sack with the soon-to-be iconic White Castle logo. To help gain their trust, the company began placing coupons in the newspaper—yet another innovative stride for the industry.

“There were so many great debates, that people weren’t going to take food out of the restaurant and eat at their house,” Richardson says. “Thankfully, Billy didn’t listen to that. And it turned out to be a pretty good idea.”

Ingram would end up being credited with a ton of good ideas—his move to Ohio being one of them. Columbus became White Castle’s home in 1934, a central location for the growing chain. It was around this time co-founder Anderson sold his shares to Ingram to pursue his interest in aviation.

Fourth-generation Ingram family members photographed before the start of White Castle's 100th birthday celebration in May 2021. Back row, left to right: Meg Kelley, Shannon Tolliver, John Kelley, Dave Rife and Jamie Richardson. Front row, left to right: Kate Richardson, Erin Shannon and White Castle CEO Lisa Ingram.

In the coming years, White Castle was thrown curveball after curveball. Competition was increasing, and World War II beef rationing caused the company to expand its menu. [It offered egg sandwiches and grilled cheese]. Changes were also made in the coming decades, like the switch to a frozen patty with five holes, which became a White Castle patent, instead of smashing a meatball patty onto the grill.

Regardless, White Castle’s slider was here for the long haul, and Billy Ingram’s legacy was to be passed down to what is now the fourth generation of his family. He died in 1966.

For White Castle family, business starts early

Ingram had a few mottos, including, “We have no right to expect loyalty except for whom we have been loyal,” says his great-granddaughter, Kate Richardson. That’s her inspiration as she works to ensure the fifth generation feels comfortable transitioning into leadership at the company.

Kate Richardson, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

Kate, 49, is wife to Jamie and holds the designated seat for the family on White Castle’s board, which was once internal but shifted to gain outside perspective. Kate’s focus is to prepare the next generation of the family to serve.

Having a business mindset starts at a young age in the White Castle family. Kate recalls games for the children, like making commercials, and even creating art for a family auction. The money collected would be up to the kids’ discretion to decide what charity they want to support.

Each year, the family holds a company business meeting—2020 sales were $780 million. Teens are also invited to begin learning the challenges and goals of the company, while the youngest children spend the time playing together and building relationships.

“Knowing that we’ve all stood up and said, ‘We want to remain a family-owned company for years to come,’ is really an inspiring thing to me,” Kate says.

To her, the success in transitioning from generation to generation comes from an unwavering culture of support, even if family chooses to work elsewhere. She hopes to bring the same culture to the fifth generation.

“I’ll go as far as to say it’s a life-affirming thing. What you’re doing is making a difference,” she says. “The customers coming in have a multi-generational experience shared with their grandparents or their parents—it’s fond memories.”

White Castle jobs are for people people

Billy Ingram was far from detached when it came to caring for his employees—even in the 1930s, he offered health insurance and a listening ear. That’s why Chief People Officer John Kelley, 53, believes his great-grandfather and even his grandfather, Edgar Ingram, would be awestruck by White Castle’s success.

John Kelley, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

He says demand has certainly changed across White Castle’s 358 locations and nearly 10,000 employees. When the company started 100 years ago, there were only a few menu items compared to today’s lengthy menu and increased customer demands. But in Kelley’s 29 years with the company, he has learned the perfect hires at White Castle have one consistent trait: they enjoy people.

“My grandfather Edgar said there’s always going to be a need by the people who are looking for a quick, nutritious lunch served by friendly people,” Kelley says. “And that’s as much alive today as it was in the 1980s when he said that.”

The recruitment process is simple: find people who enjoy working with others and teach them how to make memorable moments. For many, it’s a first job, and Kelley sees that as an opportunity to create a foundation for their future.

The solid foundation is proven to carry over within the company. Jamie Richardson says one in four employees has been with the company for a decade or longer. Further, CEO and President Lisa Ingram notes the turnover rate for White Castle general managers is just 2 percent and that of the 450 leadership positions, 442 of the hires started behind the grill.

The continued development at the company’s Goodale Boulevard headquarters, which features several apartment buildings and its newest office that pays homage to White Castle’s history, is also a stride to care for the team, Richardson says. The buildings sit on 18 acres and house more than 200 White Castle employees.

“The people and the businesses there are generating an income stream that we’re able to have help us pay for health insurance for our team members. We’re able to have that to help us pay for their retirement benefits down the road. It’s using the value of the property that’s here.”

For Kelley, the new space, which replaced the 1934 headquarters, creates even more potential for culture building. Workspaces were intentionally developed for collaboration and placed close to other teams, all in an open floor plan that promotes communication and relationship building.

“When people are walking through when they might be [going] from a meeting to a meeting, or down to the cafe to pick up some coffee or Coke, they’re going to run into other people that they may not collaborate with on a regular basis, but they will stand there and have a quick conversation and really try and bring our values to life.”

Ingram family philanthropy

When Billy Ingram moved White Castle’s headquarters to Columbus, he knew he wanted to give beyond the burger. In 1949, he founded what would become the Ingram White Castle Foundation, which has since awarded more than $22 million in grants. Today, philanthropic efforts are overseen by Erin Shannon.

Erin Shannon, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

Shannon, 45, grew up on her family’s farm an hour north of Columbus. She didn’t really know much about White Castle, but she she knew that when her family visited the city, they would return home with 100 sliders. She’s now been with the company for 23 years.

Each year, White Castle and its foundation donate more than $2 million to charities across the country and have offered over $1.5 million in scholarships to team members. That’s a reflection of the company’s mantra to “feed the souls of our communities and our team members.”

The company’s most supported cause is Autism Speaks, which has received more than $8 million over the past decade from puzzle piece campaigns hosted by White Castle. During the yearly campaigns, customers can buy a paper puzzle piece that will be on display at the restaurants.

In July the company will kick off another two-month campaign with Autism Speaks, and to close out the year, it will begin a new donation strategy called “District’s Choice.”

The idea for the new program came following a staff survey that revealed team members want more say in where corporate dollars go. This was translated into a program that was sampled from October to December of 2020 and raised nearly $700,000—money that was donated to Autism Speaks after its normal campaign was missed due to COVID-19. The program was launched again from March 1 to April 30 this year and raised $573,000 which was dispersed across 48 charities, each picked by the district managers across all White Castle locations.

New charitable campaign strategies aren’t all the company is doing to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It also granted 100 volunteer hours to district managers and their team members, and the company is giving two $40,000 scholarships to team members, with eligibility expanding to include both part-time and full-time employees.

“It’s nice to be able to have such [support] for our team members, treat them as our family and make sure that we can help them out as much as possible,” Shannon says.

White Castle CEO Lisa Ingram: Great-grandpa would be amazed

Lisa Ingram, 50, didn’t always plan to succeed her father, Bill Ingram, at White Castle. She previously worked for U.S. Sen. John Glenn and a computer supplies wholesaler before she began as White Castle’s marketing manager, left to get her MBA in operations and consulting, and came back to work on the company’s operations team.

Lisa Ingram, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

It’s been 20 years since her return, and she’s filled the roles of president, CEO, and chair of the board. Her suitability for her roles was determined by a family business advisor, similar to the rest of the family employees. Not only did she fit the requirements for her current position, but she’s the first woman to hold it.

“There are still a small number of women at the CEO position, so it’s challenging, but it’s a great industry to be in because we have such tremendous diversity in our workforce,” she says. About 75 percent of White Castle’s general managers and up are female, and 53 percent of them are ethnically diverse.

Ingram admits there needs to be more equity both in and out of the food industry but feels the changes White Castle has made would amaze her great-grandfather.

“My hope is [Billy] would be really proud of the success that we have had,” Ingram says. “You know, we’re not the biggest [company], but I think he’d be really happy that we continued as a family business, that we have so many family members involved in the business, and that we have such a diverse workforce.”

Based on her experience of working in private business, large public companies and the family business, Ingram believes a family business just does things better—not only from a level of transparency but in the ability of ownership to be easily accessible. These traits may be to thank for the company’s low employee turnover rates.

“What most people say when we ask why they stayed with us so long, is that it feels like a family,” Ingram says. “And while they may be talking about the family that owns the business, they’re also talking about the family that’s created in their [work] environment.”

Reflecting on her generation, Ingram says the past 20 years have marked an unmatched level of innovation. Most notably, the menu has seen continuous expansion and includes breakfast sandwiches with Belgian waffles [yes, they’re from Belgium], and the addition of fish, chicken and the Impossible Slider.

Despite the changes, she hopes to protect the unique experience that comes with ordering from White Castle for generations to come and for past generations who have fond memories of sharing sliders with friends.

White Castle ingredient philosophy

Billy Ingram was a firm believer in controlling the quality of the product that went across the counter, says Chief Manufacturing Officer Dave Rife, and his desire to offer top-notch ingredients was contagious. That’s why Rife, 58, has a simple yet impactful mantra: the best way to control the quality of what’s going across the counter is to control the quality coming through the back door.

Dave Rife, fourth-generation Ingram family member.

White Castle always has been in control of its own processes, even to the point that in 1934, Porcelain Steel Building [PSB] Co., a steel manufacturing division, was founded to supply components of the restaurants and build more. The idea came with Billy Ingram’s vision of having buildings that could be picked up and moved to different locations.

PSB was devoted to developing White Castle further until World War II when the company’s resources were redistributed to make amphibious vehicles for the war effort. After the war, PSB continued to manufacture for White Castle but also helped create fertilizer applicators for O.M. Scott with Scott’s Lawn Products [today’s ScottsMiracle-Gro], as well as equipment for the automotive and appliance sectors.

PSB was sold in 2015 in an effort to focus on the food business, Richardson says. White Castle also had a paper linen manufacturing facility for a brief time until relying on wholesalers for those products.

Today, White Castle has nearly 800 employees in its manufacturing division with eight plants: two bakeries, three meat production plants and three retail production plants. Soon, an existing Vandalia, Ohio, retail plant will be expanded to include an additional retail plant to meet the needs of the growing sector.

The retail division was added in 1987 by Bill Ingram, who noticed White Castle fans would stockpile sliders by freezing their leftover mini-hamburgers and eat them later after heating them in a microwave, which was starting to go mainstream.

He asked various food retailers to partner with White Castle, but nobody took him up on the offer—frozen fast food would never sell, they predicted. So, White Castle learned to produce its own frozen sliders, using the same 100 percent USDA boxed beef with five holes, steamed on a bed of onions with their bakery buns. Today it can be found in the frozen section of grocers across America.

For Rife, who began working at White Castle in the 1980s, managing the company’s supply chains has been a continuous learning experience with the introduction of new technology and constant innovation—recently, a Chicago branch introduced an artificial intelligence menu board and even a robot that helps in the fryer area.

Slider inventor started it all

It’s clear White Castle has evolved over the past 100 years, but to Jamie Richardson and the fourth-generation Ingram family, the success goes all the way back to 1921 with just an idea that would go on to establish today’s Craver Nation.

“Take all the technology away, take everything else away,” he says, “and the key to success is still based on two fundamental core parts of the business: a heart for hospitality and hot, tasty affordable food… that’s where it all started.”

jdeyo@dispatch.com

@DeyoJessica