Nothing can stop the Crave. Not the Great Depression, a World War or even the pandemic have curbed the insatiable demand for White Castle’s Sliders since the family-owned company began selling the steam-grilled burgers with onions for 5 cents each in 1921.
If anything, the events over the past year just fueled the Crave.
“Our sales have been so strong,” emphasized Dave Rife, chief manufacturing officer for the Columbus, Ohio-based chain. “I don’t know of any other brand that has the following we have.”
That was on full display in Orlando, Fla., this spring when hundreds of cars stormed the castle — make that the world’s largest White Castle restaurant — and transformed the nearby neighborhood into a parking lot during the grand opening. People sat in their cars or stood in line for up to six hours to get what Time magazine once recognized as the “Most Influential Burger of All Time.”
Keep in mind, there was only a 60-Slider limit.
“To me, that was amazing to watch,” recalled Mr. Rife, a member of the fourth generation to work in the family-owned business. “It was so fun to be a part of and to see their faces as they got closer to the drive-through window or the front counter to get their food order, and then watch them celebrate as they ran out with two Crave cases [holding 30 burgers each], one in each hand, which was a true testament to the love of the brand.”
In typical fashion, Mr. Rife was there, just as he was in 1980 when he began working behind the counter at White Castle. His cousin, Lisa Ingram, the current president and chief executive officer, also provided support just 20 minutes after she and her father, a former president, finished the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“She was back on the grill and pushing orders and doing whatever anybody asked,” Mr. Rife said. “I don’t think you see that in a lot of companies.”
Today, White Castle operates 362 restaurants in 14 states, mainly in the Midwest and New York, but also in Las Vegas; Orlando, and Scottsdale, Ariz. However, these units just satisfy part of the Crave. As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic disrupted the restaurant industry, at-home households turned to the grocery freezer case to stock up on this American icon.
“The retail business, due to COVID, has gone completely crazy,” Mr. Rife observed.
Currently, White Castle operates frozen retail plants in Covington, Ky., and Louisville, Ky., as well as in Vandalia, Ohio, which is expanding this year to keep up with the demand in all 50 states. Along with three meat plants, White Castle operates two bakeries in Cincinnati and Rensselaer, Ind., where it produces its classic 2-by-2-inch buns for its restaurants and retail manufacturing facilities.
“This gives us an advantage over everybody else because we control the quality of those key ingredients coming in the back door, and it’s just not the quality,” Mr. Rife said. “It’s the cost and everything else. It allows us to serve a hot, steamed Slider that people love at an affordable price.”
While the Rensselaer bakery supplies buns to restaurants, 80% of the Cincinnati bakery volume feeds the burgeoning retail division. Fortunately, White Castle has expanded, upgraded and reengineered the bakery, which now cranks out 8,000 dozen buns an hour, or significantly higher than the 4,800 dozen an hour produced a few years ago.
White Castle’s vertical integration goes back to the philosophy of Mr. Rife’s great-grandfather, Billy Ingram, who along with Walter Anderson started White Castle a century ago.
“The name White Castle came about because ‘white’ stood for cleanliness and purity and ‘castle’ stood for permanence and strength,” Mr. Rife explained. “My great-grandfather always believed the best way to control the quality at the counter was to control the quality at the back door, and the best way to do that is to do it yourself.”
Over the years, the company controlled most of its supply chain internally, but eventually sold off a paper linen operation that made its bags and cartons and later its steel fabrication division that built equipment for its restaurants. Third parties now supply all of those more cost-effectively.
“We realized you don’t have to be the best at everything,” Mr. Rife said. “We need to focus on our core, the meat and buns that got us here, so we don’t lose sight of what’s important. Selling the fabrication business allowed us to take those dollars and focus on the 2-by-2-inch steam-grilled Slider that people love and produce it at an affordable price.”
Upgrading its Cincinnati bun operation, also called the “Evendale Bakery” for the neighborhood where it’s located, began 15 years ago.
“Back in 2006, you didn’t have a one-stop shop for equipment,” said Jarrett Cook, director of manufacturing operations. “You had to piece it all together. When you’re a 100-year-old company, you can afford to be patient. We partnered with some pretty good companies, and that made a big difference.”
It also collaborated with consultants from The Long Co. cooperative, which provided engineering, production and sanitation expertise. They worked as a cross-functional internal team that included the bakery’s engineering, operations, sanitation and maintenance groups, as well as White Castle’s internal construction and engineering experts. Mr. Rife said the main objective involved reengineering the bakery, originally built in 1964, without disrupting its supply chain.
To accomplish this feat, White Castle purchased six acres to expand the facility by 25,000 square feet for greater packaging, freezing and warehouse capacity. It also provided one other essential element. The additional space created the flexibility to reconfigure the entire single-line operation, install equipment in stages and never miss a beat in supplying its growing restaurant and retail manufacturing businesses.
Specifically, the company put in a new proofer and oven in 2011 where the old packaging department had been. It then added new mixing and makeup equipment in 2015 where the old proofer and oven were. Finally, and perhaps the biggest technological challenge, it installed high-tech packaging in 2018. During each stage, the bakery shut down for just one week to tie the new equipment into the existing line.
“We made sure we had a full freezer prior to each shutdown, and we had help from the Rensselaer bakery,” Mr. Cook said.
Although the projects took longer than the company wanted, upgrading over an eight-year period enabled robotic and other packaging technology to advance so White Castle could completely automate the trickiest part of the operation, which involves wrapping and placing four, 48-count clusters of buns in each case.
“The technology had changed over the entirety of the project,” Mr. Rife explained. “The packaging that was being considered in the beginning was not what we ended up with.”
The manufacturing team attended not only bakery shows but also meat and packaging expos to explore potential packaging solutions, and eventually settled on a combination of systems from Motion Control and CV-Tek, a Middleby Packaging Solutions company.
“The packaging equipment that we have here was designed for the meat industry, and they didn’t have anything off the shelf,” Mr. Rife recalled. “But when we started talking to them, they said, ‘We can handle this for you guys,’ and they did.”
This article is an excerpt from the July 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on White Castle, click here.