White Castle Looks For More Sizzle

WHIAt the Columbus, Ohio headquarters of America?s oldest burger chain time seems as frozen as the beef patties. A dingy pub-style, stained-glass White Castle sign hangs in the lobby above a mannequin in a dress made out of the signature blue, white and yellow boxes. Down a flight of linoleum stairs and into a musty carpeted hallway, a hawk sculpture with a miniature slider in its claw sits on a coffee table near the office of the president, Lisa Ingram, 43, the fourth-generation Ingram to run the place.

?I remember the stairs to the cafeteria being dark blue and very steep,? says Ingram, who has a mass of curly light brown hair and a quick smile. Today the steps lead to the ?Cravers Hall of Fame??plaques emblazoned with the names of impassioned fans who?ve broken decades of Lent fasts and enjoyed first dates at a White Castle, driven to every outlet in the nation and inked themselves with tattoos of the company logo.

But a business, even one that is 100% family-owned, can?t live on nostalgia. Last year White Castle netted an estimated $12 million on revenue of $612 million?results that have essentially flatlined over the last eight years. Roughly half of its 401 outlets were built before 1960; the average manager has put in 21 years. The company has tried, and failed, at various expansion efforts over the past two decades. Lisa, who took over as president last year, is fresh blood, but hardly new blood at the 93-year-old chain.

?With the exception of our new senior vice president of operations we just hired from the outside, every single person who reports to me has at least 25 years of service,? Lisa says with discernible pride. She is cautiously experimenting with new brands, slight variations in the menu (testing pretzel and cheddar buns, for example), even introducing a food truck or two. ?You won?t see us coming out with a big burger,? says Lisa. ?It has to fit our 2-by-2-inch buns.?

That?s why White Castle is stuck in limbo?or, perhaps, burgertory. Stray from the past and you risk losing cult followers. Fail to change and you risk getting left behind.

It was back in 1921 when Billy Ingram took out a $700 loan and, with friend Walt Anderson, opened a shack in Wichita, Kans. that sold tiny five-cent burgers, coffee, pie and Coca-Cola . Billy bought out Anderson in 1933 and moved the operation to Columbus a year later. By the time his son, Edgar, took over in 1966, White Castle had surpassed 1 billion burgers served and was a sizable manufacturer of paper hats and prefab steel-and-porcelain parts for food processing and food services. Its edible innovations were paltry: fish sandwiches, ice cream shakes, cheeseburgers, onion rings.

His son?Lisa?s dad, Bill (E.W. Ingram III)?took over in 1992. Today, at 63, he sits at the same mahogany desk in the same office as his grandfather, an uncanny colorized version of the black-and-white photo of the cofounder on a nearby table. He speaks in a clipped baritone, as if on a ration of one-word answers, growing animated only when talking about fly-fishing. No longer active in day-to-day business, Bill acts as an advisor. ?I still show up, and they pay me on Friday,? he deadpans. After mandatory retirement at 65, he?ll remain on the board of seven, three of them relatives.

?I?ve always learned more from my mistakes than my so-called successes,? Bill confides. And there were a few whoppers under his reign. During the 1990s White Castle tried?and failed?to expand in Mexico, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, running into an economic crisis here, a poorly capitalized partner there. ?Our approach was less professional than what we would like to think we?d do today,? says Russ Meyer, the chief financial officer. White Castle is still in only 12 states.

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