Originally published in The Daily.
In 1921, in the early days of meat inspection, an American cow’s journey from factory to restaurant was still long and uncertain, a public-health gamble for everyone but vegetarians. Ground beef was especially suspect. If you, the diner, dared to sink your fangs into a burger, your greasy mouthful might contain an unpleasant surprise: if you were lucky, part of a cow; if you were not — something else.
But that year, a visionary company was founded that had the same effect on American dining that Henry Ford’s Model T had on American locomotion. Ford transformed cars from artisanal curiosities, painstakingly and idiosyncratically crafted, into standardized, reliable devices. The White Castle burger chain did the same with food. At the time, restaurants tended to be mom-and-pop affairs with menus that might change if mom happened to be laid up with dropsy that evening. And if you didn’t know mom or pop, you’d just have to trust that they didn’t buy tubercular beef from the backdoor of a crooked factory in Packingtown.
The hero of this story is Billy Ingram of Wichita, Kan. In 1920, Ingram, an insurance mogul, met a french-fry chef and fellow Mason named Walt Anderson, and he instantly knew that the smell of sizzling suet was the smell of money. Ingram bought a share of Anderson’s streetcar burger shacks. Anderson was left to perfect the burger and did so, for instance, by creating bun with a hard outer layer to keep it from getting soaked in meat juice. Ingram let Anderson take care of food preparation but was otherwise a control freak. Luckily, he was a genius as well.
Ingram and Anderson started by directly attacking the image of the hamburger stand as an improvised restaurant, capable of being struck like a campsite and moved across state lines after the first typhoid outbreak. Instead of a “stand,” they chose a castle: permanent, solid, capable of accepting legal service. Then they took on the daunting task of rehabilitating the image of the burger itself. Ground beef was reputed to contain rodent-hairs and filth, and the restaurants that served it were the sorts of place where a cook might drop a patty on the floor and serve it, with no one the wiser. Instead, they redesigned the burger stand as if it were a temple of hygiene, with stainless steel equipment, eggshell-white walls like a hospital and employees clad in white smocks and white paper hats, like nurses. There is a reason the restaurant is not called Brown Castle.
Within five years, Ingram had become an evangelist not just for hamburgers but for a whole way of doing business. Josh Ozersky, whose book “The Hamburger” is the foremost chronicle of that most American of sandwiches, writes that Ingram “spoke of his little chain of burger stands in tones reserved to world conquerors,” confident that a burger-oriented version of manifest destiny pertained to White Castle. And just as Genghis Khan set up trade routes and postal systems to let knowledge percolate through his empire, Ingram set up an in-house trade letter, Hot Hamburger, to let best practices filter through his. He watched his restaurants with what Ozersky calls “Kremlin-like management,” allowing no detail to deviate from the norm. In 1927, he bought his own Curtis OX-5 Travel Air biplane to get from restaurant to restaurant so he could personally guarantee uniformity.
In a way, Henry Ford had it easy: Screws and rivets come in fixed sizes, but the dimensions and contents of animals are dictated by nature, and turning them into interchangeable parts — as the poet Howard Nemerov put it, “compressing the little lambs into orderly cubes, making the roast a decent cylinder”— required a whole research program. Ingram had to ask his employees for feedback so he could determine, for example, exactly how many burgers could, and should, each restaurant get from a pound of beef. How long did it take to cook them, and at what precise moment did the chefs squash the cooking clump of meat to flatten it out?
It was this scientific approach to burger-flipping that led to what is now one of the signature elements of the White Castle experience: square burgers. White Castle’s R&D team noticed that a griddle covered with round burgers left the spaces between the meat vacant — as much as a quarter of the griddle. Square burgers solved that problem by covering the whole griddle in a grid pattern.
He even set up a Food Experiment Department in Wichita, where burgers prepared according to experimental methods were sold cheap to daring customers, like willing subjects at barber college. And in 1930, 73 years before Morgan Spurlock and “Super Size Me,” he paid the University of Minnesota to monitor the health of a volunteer who went 13 weeks eating only White Castle burgers at a rate of 20-24 per day. The volunteer was fine, said the professors. Ingram claimed that a child on this diet could “fully develop all its physical and mental faculties.”
Ingram died in 1966 at 85, old enough to have seen his business grow fast but not nearly fast enough to keep up with the competition. Today, there are only 420 White Castles — so few that it was possible to make a whole feature-length movie about the quest to find one. (If Harold and Kumar had hankered for a Big Mac, by the end of the first reel they would be back home and in their jammies, smoking a bedtime doob.) McDonald’s, which now has over 30,000 locations, did what Ingram could never abide: It franchised out, allowing individual owners to do the heavy work of spreading the McDonald’s sect of burger orthodoxy to every corner of the planet. Eventually, White Castle’s Kremlinesque leadership met its limits, and although White Castle kept making money, it essentially froze in place, allowing a rival superpower to steal away its destiny. Still, whenever we walk into a chain restaurant location for the first time, and know what we want before even looking at a menu, we know whom to thank.