Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Lisa Ingram, fourth-generation CEO of White Castle, about learning from family, customers and other industries.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was surrounded by White Castles. Their square turrets and blue awnings were like beacons in the night — and a big part of my college experience. I didn’t know much about their leadership or culture, but I knew the brand must be pretty special to have lasted for nearly a century. Turns out they’re family-owned, and the current CEO is a fourth-generation family member. She is open, astute and avidly curious. And she knows exactly where she wants to take the brand.
You are in a unique situation as the fourth-generation leader of a family-owned business. What was it like to be in the family business growing up and now?
My father was the CEO, and we grew up obviously very involved in White Castle, but it wasn’t something we promoted. I never bragged to my friends that my dad was the CEO. I remember coming to this office and sitting on the switchboard operator Rosemary’s lap when I was young. I remember the stairs down the basement being very blue and very steep. I remember visiting different Castles with my dad.
It’s fun to work alongside generations of family members and to have a lot of your childhood revolve around an iconic brand. But I really felt a desire to do my own thing, and my father encouraged all of us to find our passion. I went to business school in Dallas at SMU and waited tables. Then a marketing manager job opened at White Castle. They asked if I had any interest. I thought that was a sign I should come back home and really figure out if I wanted to be in the family business.
I worked for a couple years before I left to get my MBA at Ohio State. I still wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to stay in the family business. I had a couple of consulting offers, but when I sat down with my dad to review the options, he offered me an operations position. Operations is the heart and soul of this business. It’s where all the magic happens. So it was very compelling for me, and I’ve been back 19 years now.
How was your father about handing over the reins?
He was very supportive. We have a family business consultant we’ve used for many years who helped create a succession plan. They invited any fourth-generation family members who were interested in being considered for president to participate. Three of us put our name in the hat.
How’d that turn out?
Through that process, the three of us were able to figure out our individual skillsets and where we could bring value. My two cousins are still with the company and working in areas where they have significant responsibility and add tremendous value. They’ve been very supportive of me and the company moving forward, which has been fabulous.
Do you think coming up through operations instead of marketing changed how you run the company?
Two things were very beneficial for me. One was that I worked outside the business, and I got to see a lot of different management styles and understand what things I wanted to emulate and what things I didn’t. That was a great foundation. The second was really understanding how our restaurant operation works. We have eight manufacturing plants and are completely vertically integrated. We have a strong restaurant brand, but we also have a very strong retail brand.
Where did the name White Castle come from?
It’s a great story. My great-grandfather was an insurance salesman. At the ripe old age of 41, he decided he no longer wanted to be in that business, and he began his wild experiment in the hamburger business. A hamburger at the time actually was not something a lot of people ate, but he felt it was a good product, a good family option, and so he picked the name “White Castle.” “White” for purity and cleanliness and “Castle” for permanence and strength. He wanted everybody to feel like they were coming to an establishment that was clean but that was going to be around for a while.
You have such an iconic architectural footprint. Do you ever see that changing?
Wow, yeah, I don’t know if you can take the castle out of White Castle.
What about your sliders? They’re so iconic. How are they changing? When you think about White Castle, you think about the traditional two-by-two-inch slider my great-grandfather started out with. We started in 1921, but we didn’t do our first product development until 1962. It took us 41 years. And it was putting a slice of cheese on our burger.
Over the past eight years, we’ve focused on expanding our slider offering. If you still want the traditional slider, we can make you that. But we also have an amazing breakfast slider, which is a fresh-cracked egg on our bun or toast or these little Belgian waffles we literally buy from Belgium and ship on a boat. They’re amazing. So if you want a breakfast slider, a veggie slider, a chicken slider, a turkey slider, we’ve got them. We recently introduced our Impossible slider. All of that is to appeal to a younger generation that wants more variety and more choices.
So your products are changing because your customers are?
Yes, we’re unique in that we’ve been around for 98 years. When you come into a White Castle, the age range is often very wide. In the ’30s and ’40s, people came in for one product — and a lot still do — but our customer base has changed. We have customers that grew up on White Castle, and now have decided that they’re vegetarians but still crave White Castle.
We like to talk about our customers as generations. Our vision is “to feed the souls of craver generations everywhere.” To do that, a lot of our focus has been to be more relevant, to be more innovative. Not only with the food, but also with technology. We were one of the first hamburger QSRs to introduce an online ordering app. We have our kiosk and we’ve been partnering with delivery services. We’ve embraced technology to help the brand stay relevant and stay cool.
Where did the term “slider” come from?
That actually came from our customers. Our customers would talk about them sliding down their throat because we steam grill them. There was a time when we didn’t actually like that term. But it’s something that customers talk about with love, so we’ve embraced it. And now, the term “slider” is very widely used outside of White Castle as something small and yummy.
You have some unique brand rituals, like Valentine’s Day and Cravers Hall of Fame. How did those start?
I’m going to sound repetitive here. That came from customers. A lot of customers had their first date or met their spouse at White Castle. We’re located in areas where going out to a fine dining restaurant on Valentine’s Day can be a struggle, so we offer an affordable option.
The brand ritual itself started in Minneapolis when a general manager noticed that a couple kept coming in on Valentine’s Day. She knew they were coming in, so she set aside a table, put a white tablecloth with flowers on it, and made little menus. Other customers saw what she was doing and wanted that same experience.
Same thing with Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Our product is meat, bread and onions — all the things in stuffing. We had a recipe contest probably 25 or 30 years ago, and somebody submitted this turkey stuffing recipe.
Lastly, we have our Cravers Hall of Fame. Every year we ask Cravers (what we call our customers) to submit their stories about why they love White Castle. We get about a thousand a year, and we pick 10. We like to say that it’s easier to get into Harvard than the White Castle Hall of Fame.
One of my favorite stories is two guys from New York who were inducted a few years ago. They decided to honor their friend Vinny, a firefighter and a huge lover of White Castle who was killed in 9/11. These two guys decided to train for the New York Marathon and raise money for firefighters. Along the way, they stopped at every single White Castle on the New York Marathon route. We have lots of those types of stories.
It’s interesting about the lengths that customers go. We have customers from California who would fly to other parts of the country to get the sliders and bring them back for their family.
Is that how the concept of “Crave” happened?
Yes. Because we are only in the Midwest and Northeast, when customers move, they talk about this craving. There’s stories of people flying into Midway or to O’Hare and coming back to the airport to catch their connecting flight with a suitcase of sliders to take with them.
What do you personally do to stay close to the White Castle customer?
A couple of things. I’m out on social media, on Twitter and LinkedIn. Just yesterday, a customer tweeted me about an experience that he had in St. Louis with one of our team members. I pay attention to make sure I’m responsive. But the biggest thing I do is go out and visit every region every year. I was in Chicago yesterday making burgers and talking to team members. I want to make sure I don’t get too far removed from really where the action is.
How do you keep up on QSR trends?
I go to a lot of industry conferences, but I also go to a lot of conferences that don’t have anything to do with restaurants — to understand from a technology or retail standpoint what might be applicable to the restaurant space in the future. I went to retail’s big show last January for the first time and got to hear from Target, Patagonia and TOMS. There were also some interesting speakers from Alibaba talking about what’s going on in China. Since we have two stores in Shanghai, it’s important to understand how retail is changing.
When we went over to Shanghai, we saw some interesting technology that could potentially come here. WeChat is a huge platform integrating Apple Pay, Twitter and Facebook. It’ll be really interesting to see how it will change how we work when it comes over here.
In our industry, I look at Chick-fil-A. They are an amazing company. They are family-owned and -operated, and they are killing it. It’s amazing to me the business that they do with the hours that they have and the days that they’re opened. I’ve met Dan Cathy, and they’re all just wonderful people. They’ve invited us to come down to see their innovation center. They’re very open.
Is that unique, or is the industry fairly open?
The industry is really actually very open. I’ve interacted with a lot of CEOs. They’re not going to tell me their trade secrets, but they’re always willing to share. I had the opportunity to go visit Shake Shack because we wanted to learn how they did their GM conference. I’ve met Greg Creed from Yum! Brands. He’s an amazing leader and someone that I admire as well. We are all very open to exchanging ideas and talk about how we are dealing with product development and labor.
With low unemployment and a 24-hour operation, staffing has got to be a challenge.
It is, it is. Especially right now. But I feel fortunate that we have a great place that people want to work. We have a 25-year club. Each year, we induct people who’ve worked for us for 25 consecutive years. We have anywhere from 50 to over a 100 people each year.
Every year I ask the same question: “How many of you when you first started, thought you’d only work for White Castle for a couple of months until you found something better?” Everybody raises their hand. When we ask why they stay, they tell us it feels like family. They’re not talking about me, they’re talking about the family that’s created in their Castle or their plant or their department — where their manager makes them feel special, understood and challenges them to grow.
How do you preserve the culture but still grow at the rate you want?
My great-grandfather wanted to grow at a pace that allowed him to continue to be hands-on. He wanted to know the team members. He wanted to know how they were interacting with the customers. He wanted appropriate quality controls on the products we were serving. That’s harder in a franchise than it is if you own and operate all your locations.
Now, we have 370 restaurant locations. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have thousands because they franchise. The trade-off is that we can’t grow as fast. We started 40 years before they did, but they’re much larger. It really comes down to your priorities. For us, having control of the product, interaction with the customers, and direct influence on team members is what’s important.
I didn’t realize White Castle was America’s first burger chain.
Yup. Time magazine said we’re the most influential burger ever because we were the first. When you start in 1921 and everybody else follows, that gives you a leg up.
Who’s your mentor?
I have a lot of mentors. My father is obviously one. I also admire Indra Nooyi, who was the CEO of PepsiCo. I never got a chance to meet her personally, but I’ve always enjoyed hearing her speak. She’s very down to earth. There’s a woman who I admire by the name of Tanny Crane, who is a wonderful leader in the Columbus community, and she’s always been a mentor to me. I’d love to meet Warren Buffett.
Do you have children?
Will you do the same as your dad and encourage them to figure out what they want to do?
I will be the same as my dad. They should go and follow their passion. They should go work someplace else. If at some point they decide to figure out if they want to be in the family business, we can talk about it.