The White Castle System of Eating Houses

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible is brought to you by the Lexus GX and Sirius XM. As a 99PI listener, we know that you delight in exploring regional architecture wherever you go. If you’re looking for an adventure SUV that promises both luxury and capability, the new Lexus GX is just the vehicle you’ve been looking for. Enabled with SiriusXM, the 2024 GX comes equipped with a rich array of content you can enjoy on your next road trip. In true 99PI fashion, get in a GX today, and experience how great design marries form and function. To learn more about the GX and SiriusXM and Lexus vehicles, visit and The all-new Lexus GX–live up to it. Article believes in delightful design for every home. Article’s team of designers are all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. They’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time and looks good doing it. You know, everyone has this period of time where your furniture is what is given to you or what you find on the street. But there’s a moment where you have the means that you buy your own furniture. And I’m telling you, the first thing you should buy is a good dining table. It is the thing that makes a house a home. And I love my Article Seno Walnut dining table. It is the greatest. Get yourself a good dining table. Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. They’re having their Presidents Day sale from February 5th to February 19th, which will be the perfect time to use your store credit on top of sale prices. To claim, visit and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Robert Half research indicates that nine out of ten hiring managers are having difficulty hiring. If you have open roles, chances are you’re feeling this, too. That’s why you need Robert Half. Here, specialized recruiting professionals engage with their proprietary AI to connect businesses of all sizes with highly skilled talent in finance and accounting, technology, marketing and creative, legal and administrative, and customer support. At Robert Half, they know talent. Visit today. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. As anyone who has ever been to a White Castle restaurant knows, the food is… How do I put this? 

Jeremy Brooks: It’s never going to be considered classic five-star food, but you know what you’re getting when you go there. 

Roman Mars: Jeremy Brooks has been a diehard White Castle fan ever since going regularly as a kid with his dad. 

Jeremy Brooks: That’s either something you’re going to love or you cannot stand. 

Roman Mars: For starters, the patties are square–but it’s kind of their thing–with five holes in each patty. And they’re small, too–2.5in sliders just big enough to fit in the palm of your hand. And since they’re steamed on a bed of onions, everything is infused with this very specific, onion-esque flavor. 

Jeremy Brooks: Plus, you get the steamed buns, too, so they’re nice and soft. So, you can basically just, like, squish it in your hand and just shove it in your mouth if you want. 

Roman Mars: Like the man said, you either love it or you hate it. 

Jeremy Brooks: I happen to love it, and I still do 40+years later. 

Mackenzie Martin: If you’ve never been to a White Castle, though, that’s not entirely surprising. They’re not exactly easy to come by. 

Roman Mars: That’s reporter/producer Mackenzie Martin, who first dug into this story for the KCUR Studios podcast, A People’s History of Kansas City. 

Mackenzie Martin: But that obscurity is also kind of White Castle’s thing. They’re only in the U.S., and your state probably doesn’t have any. If it does, even just making it there can sometimes be challenging, like in the 2004 buddy comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. 

Roman Mars: A film in which the entire plot revolves around trying to find a White Castle. 

Kumar: What happened to the White Castle? 

Burger Shack Employee: What? 

Kumar: There used to be a White Castle right here in this location. Where is it? 

Burger Shack Employee: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, guys, but Burger Shack bought this location about four years ago. 

Kumar: Please tell me there’s another White Castle in town. 

Burger Shack Employee: No. 

Mackenzie Martin: White Castles are so scattered that even I, the reporter of the story, have never actually been to one. Where I live in Kansas City–we haven’t had a White Castle in decades, which is absolutely crushing to superfan Jeremy Brooks. 

Jeremy Brooks: I drive by the places where I know those locations used to be, and I’ll look at the building and just let a little, quiet sigh out as I drive on by. 

Mackenzie Martin: And for most people today, that’s really all White Castle is–a semi obscure, guilty pleasure, cultural punchline, which–okay, fine–it kind of is. But White Castle is also so much more than that. 

Roman Mars: Because over a century ago, White Castle invented something that became so important and all-encompassing that today it touches pretty much every person in America, sometimes several times a day–something that in other countries has almost come to define American culture. 

Adam Chandler: White Castle has the strongest claim to have been the first restaurant that is a fast-food restaurant. 

Mackenzie Martin: That’s Adam Chandler, a journalist and the author of Drive-Thru Dreams, a book about Americans’ love affair with fast food. And Chandler says that before McDonald’s, before Burger King, before combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, there was White Castle. 

Adam Chandler: You cannot throw a stone in the air without hitting a fast-food restaurant. But what White Castle really did in paving the way for all of its brethren is hard to match. It’s hard to understand–it’s hard to grasp–because it came from virtually nothing. 

Mackenzie Martin: The first chain restaurant in the United States popped up in the late 19th century, catering to disembarking passengers along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. But it catered to a fancier clientele, and it didn’t serve food all that fast. For that, you were stuck with your typical food carts or automats. 

Roman Mars: And crucially, none of these places served anything that we moderns would recognize as a hamburger. 

Adam Chandler: Back then, we had kind of a loose confederation of places that served hamburger-like objects. 

Roman Mars: These proto burgers usually involved loosely ground beef or a meatball served between two slices of bread. But that’s about it. 

Adam Chandler: It wasn’t a bun. It didn’t have the name “hamburger” in a lot of instances. It was just kind of a sandwich. 

Mackenzie Martin: No one can say for sure exactly when the first properly compacted, bun encased hamburger appeared. But one of the first steps toward the modern hamburger also happened to be the first step toward fast food when, as the legend goes… 

Roman Mars: Please be advised SiriusXM Incorporated can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of the next 30 seconds of this audio program. 

Mackenzie Martin: One day, sometime between 1912 and 1916, a self-described “ne’er-do-well” and fry cook named J. Walter Anderson was repairing some meatballs at a diner in Wichita, Kansas, when, according to David Hogan… 

David Hogan: He was frying these meatballs, and he got frustrated and took the spatula and just slammed it down and made it into a patty. 

Mackenzie Martin: David is a history professor at Heidelberg University and author of a book about White Castle. 

David Hogan: He put it between two halves of a bun. And now we have the food that we’re most familiar with. But people liked it. 

Roman Mars: Now, whether Walt Anderson was truly the first to create a contemporary hamburger is not really what matters. What matters and the part of the story for which we do not need to issue a disclaimer is what happened next. 

Mackenzie Martin: Building on his success, Walt opened his first burger place in 1916, outfitting an old shoe repair stand with three stools selling burgers for $0.05 a piece. The stand’s official slogan was “Buy ’em by the Sack.” David Hogan’s book, by the way, is called Selling ’em by the Sack. 

Roman Mars: Eventually, Walt’s burgers would be nicknamed “sliders.” And contrary to popular belief, sliders are not just tiny burgers. They’re specifically burgers cooked with raw onions because that’s how Walt made his. 

Mackenzie Martin: As it turns out, Wichita was the perfect place to set America on its burger journey. In the early 1900s, immigration from Europe and Latin America, urban migration from farms, and the Kansas oil boom brought in thousands of laborers, all looking for a fast, cheap meal. 

Adam Chandler: And these were people who were on their breaks or on their way to the factory or taking lunch or leaving. And they wanted something that was quick and savory and hearty and cheap. And that is exactly what these sliders provided. 

Mackenzie Martin: By 1920, Walt Anderson had multiple stands in Wichita. But it wasn’t yet a fast-food restaurant chain in the way we would understand it. 

Roman Mars: Because there was still a big obstacle preventing burgers from really taking off. Most Americans didn’t trust ground beef, thanks in large part to a book that is so famous, so important, and so influential that I’m actually a little shocked to realize that it has never once been mentioned in the course of 569 episodes of 99% Invisible. 

Mackenzie Martin: Journalist Upton Sinclair’s bestselling novel The Jungle was meant to raise the alarm of the unsanitary and appalling working conditions at meat processing plants. But it had an unintended side effect. 

Adam Chandler: And everybody who read it or heard about it read instead that eating meat is bad. 

Roman Mars: Here’s just one passage. “There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats.” Oh my God.

Mackenzie Martin: Suffice to say, the book was impactful enough that over a decade later, many meat products couldn’t shake the stink, especially ground meat. 

David Hogan: But what ground meat really was–and everybody knew–is meat that had essentially gone bad was ground up and infused with chemicals, literally preservatives. And it would be marketable for another week or so. 

Mackenzie Martin: Ground meat was for the poor. For the better off, eating at one of Walt Anderson’s burger stands would have been embarrassing. 

Roman Mars: Walt told the local newspaper that children would routinely order a half a dozen burgers to carry out. Then he’d watch as they would run around the corner to a fancy car where their mothers were waiting–too ashamed, he presumed, to come into Walt’s dinky little place themselves. 

Mackenzie Martin: If he wanted the business to grow, Walt needed a partner–specifically a salesman. 

Adam Chandler: Billy Ingram is the ultimate 1920s booster–just hustling nonstop to sell you something. 

Mackenzie Martin: Edgar Waldo Ingram, who went by Billy, was a Wichita insurance and real estate broker. And in 1921, he partnered up with Walt to help sell the public on hamburgers–even though at the time everyone warned Billy to stay away. 

William J. Borrelli: I told him he should keep his name alive in the insurance business because he soon would find out that he was making a big mistake fooling around with hamburgers.

Mackenzie Martin: This is one of Billy’s old business associates. 

William J. Borrelli: But it didn’t work out that way, did it? Definitely not. 

Roman Mars: Because when Billy Ingram took a look at the market for burgers, he saw something that bestirred his businessman’s beating heart. 

Billy Ingram: You know, there was no competition in the beginning.

Mackenzie Martin: This is from an interview with Billy years later. 

Billy Ingram: This may seem strange to you. But when I went to Omaha, there were no hamburger stands. When I went to Kansas City, there were no hamburger stands. And when I went to St. Louis, there were no hamburger stands in St. Louis. When I came to Columbus, there were no hamburger stands in Columbus. 

Roman Mars: In this glorious vacuum, Billy set about convincing Americans to buy burgers by turning Walt’s stands into a special kind of restaurant, the likes of which didn’t yet exist. 

Mackenzie Martin: Walt was well aware of the stigma attached to ground beef, so he already had fresh beef delivered twice a day and even ground the meat in front of customers. But with the addition of Billy on the team, these initiatives were taken to new, slightly neurotic heights. 

David Hogan: He said, “We have to have the best product–the healthiest products–in the most cleanly surroundings that we could possibly have. 

Mackenzie Martin: In 1921, Billy and Walt debuted a new concept with a very scientific sounding name: The White Castle System of Eating Houses–“white” to signify purity, and “castle” to signify strength and permanence. 

Roman Mars: And “system” to signify a system of eating houses. 

Adam Chandler: What White Castle did was absolutely unique. I’m sure that there are other versions of automats and small-scale diners that really served food quickly indoors. But White Castle had a whole system that made it stand out in its efficiency and really replicated the experience of dining in a way that a lot of other restaurants that had multiple locations didn’t really do. 

Roman Mars: That consistency started with the castles themselves. Every restaurant would soon be made out of white porcelain enameled steel, making the exterior extra shiny and easy to clean. 

Adam Chandler: There was a lot of character in these White Castle buildings. They actually looked like castles. They had this kind of aura and stained glass, turreted aesthetic that I thought, looking at it, “Why wouldn’t you want to eat there? It looks like a lot of fun.”

Roman Mars: Inside, the restaurants all had the same layout: a grill, a counter, and five stools. And everything was scrubbed daily, so it sparkled–the checkered tile, the woodwork, the utensils… 

Mackenzie Martin: Every restaurant was open concept, so you could watch the cook prepare your burger on a visibly clean grill in front of you. 

David Hogan: And from the very beginning, Billy Ingram said, “We want our employees to be extremely positive. We want them to be customer friendly.”

Mackenzie Martin: Billy insisted that employees all wear clean white shirts, pants, and aprons. Hair was to be covered by a white paper cap. Fingernails were to be kept neat and clean. And elaborate jewelry and wristwatches were strictly prohibited. 

Roman Mars: The menu featured just a handful of items: coffee, Coca-Cola, pie, and hamburgers made exclusively of beef shoulder meat. The smaller the menu, the faster and more reliably the items on it could be made. 

Mackenzie Martin: Likewise, everything about the patties–the square shape and the five holes which were added later–were designed to promote faster cooking and seemingly instantaneous service every time. 

Adam Chandler: The funny thing is, today, if we had the exact same experience everywhere we go, we’d think of it as kind of weird and dystopian, right? But there is a beauty in going to a place where you know what the experience is going to be like. You know how much the food is going to cost. You know exactly what it’s going to taste like. You know what the store generally is going to look like. 

Roman Mars: This was also at a time when Americans were becoming more invested in national products than locally produced ones. White Castle appealed to the same customers buying off-the-rack clothing from Sears, Roebuck and shopping for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Campbell Soup. Uniformity and affordability was the point. 

Adam Chandler: I think there’s something about what Billy Ingram was selling with the hamburger that made it seem modern–that made it seem like he has this proto assembly line of people creating all these burgers while, you know, a few hundred miles north, the assembly lines of Detroit are churning out Model Ts. 

Mackenzie Martin: White Castle also made its restaurants accessible, strategically building near factories and later college campuses. And during a time when African Americans couldn’t travel safely around the country or freely enter most restaurants, David Hogan says Billy Ingram didn’t discriminate. 

David Hogan: He was going to take anybody’s dollar or–in the case of this–anybody’s nickel. 

Roman Mars: Meanwhile, in its zeal to introduce hamburgers to the middle class, the company developed some slightly bizarre but effective marketing strategies. 

Mackenzie Martin: The company commissioned a study at the University of Minnesota, where a medical student ate nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water for 13 weeks. At the end of the experiment, a food scientist came to the conclusion that a normal, healthy child could subsist off a totally White Castle diet and be perfectly fine. 

Roman Mars: Kind of like the documentary Supersize Me, except–you know–the opposite. 

Mackenzie Martin: The combination of predictability, cleanliness, and good old fashioned false advertising was a winning formula. By the early 1930s, White Castle and–along with it–hamburgers were considered so mainstream and trendy that they had even become the favorite meal of beloved cartoon characters. 

Wimpy: There’s nothing in the world that can compare with a hamburger, juicy and rare… 

David Hogan: It was a craze. It literally was a craze. It was like everybody just thought that this new product was so incredible. 

Mackenzie Martin: Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the White Castle burger empire expanded out from Wichita rapidly. In that interview with Billy from later on, he lists off the locations. First Laredo, then Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis…

Billy Ingram: Then Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, New York, and New Jersey. We now have 84 in operation. 

Roman Mars: But White Castle would eventually encounter the problem suffered by every truly great, innovative, groundbreaking company. 

David Hogan: People in cities across America said, “Okay, there’s something about this White Castle. We’re not sure what it is. Let’s just copy the whole damn thing. Let’s copy the name almost. Let’s copy the architecture. Let’s copy the burger. Let’s copy the delivery system. Let’s copy everything.”

Kewpee Hamburger: Kewpee hamburg. Pickle on top. Makes your heart go flippity-flop. 

Krystal: Kids just naturally love Krystal hamburgers because the flavor is steamed right into the buns.

Roman Mars: But before long, you could find White Hut, White Palace, White Tower… 

Adam Chandler: Red Tower, Blue Tower…

Mackenzie Martin: Little Tavern, Little Crowns, Little Kastle…

Roman Mars: That’s Kastle with a K. 

Tastee Donuts: Have you ever had one of those wonderful days when everything seems to turn into a tasty donut or a meal of Tastee Kastle burgers? 

Royal Castle Trinidad: Royal Castle home. Home of the Royal Castle.

Mackenzie Martin: But the quality of these copycat operations was often questionable. But since many of the White Castle imitators were housed in white buildings or featured castle architecture, like turrets, they appeared extremely similar. 

Roman Mars: Some places didn’t even try and come up with a new name. They just straight up called themselves White Castle. 

David Hogan: It’s trademark infringement obviously. A company is only as good as its name. You know, when that name gets diluted, it’s a threat to their existence. 

Roman Mars: White Castle ended up suing one of the biggest imitators and winning a large payout. But ultimately, it was a game of legal whack-a-mole. It was impossible to go after everyone. 

Mackenzie Martin: But even if they could, the company would still face a dilemma because the thing that White Castle pioneered–the unique dining experience Walt and Billy started selling back in 1921–it was becoming commonplace. In a sense, there was nothing unique for White Castle to sell that wasn’t also offered by its competitors. 

Roman Mars: And there was one imitator who would do more than just compete with White Castle. Instead, it would essentially replace it by becoming nearly synonymous with fast food itself. 

McDonald’s: Get yourself ready for a trip through McDonaldland… 

Mackenzie Martin: McDonald’s was founded in San Bernardino, California, by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1940. That’s 20 years after White Castle. And at first, just like the other copycats, it took so much from White Castle: diligent levels of cleanliness, a limited menu…

Adam Chandler: And if you find an old picture of the very first McDonald’s, it has a slogan that says, “Buy ’em by the Bag” on the marquee. And that’s a direct rip-off of White Castle. 

Mackenzie Martin: But McDonald’s had a crucial advantage that all the other White Castle imitators didn’t have. It had Ray Kroc. 

Roman Mars: Kroc was the businessman who took the company national in 1955. 

David Hogan: Ray Kroc–bless his heart–just learned somehow to do it bigger and ultimately, I guess you could argue, better. 

Roman Mars: Take location for starters. White Castle placed its restaurants near factories, downtowns, and colleges. But McDonald’s came of age during the building of the interstate and the rise of the suburb. So, Kroc placed his restaurants on increasingly busy highways. 

Adam Chandler: And that was something that Ray Kroc and a lot of his operators and a lot of his executives helped pioneer was a system to basically flood the zone of American roadsides with McDonald’s. 

Mackenzie Martin: McDonald’s wasn’t just a place for someone on foot to grab food on their lunch break. It was for anyone in a car on their way to anywhere. But it was also able to expand much faster than White Castle because it was willing to do something that White Castle refused to do. It franchised. 

Roman Mars: Billy Ingram–bless his heart–was way too much of a control freak to do that. The man who wanted every customer to have the exact same perfect experience wasn’t about to relinquish any control. But even if it resulted in the occasional limp fry, franchising allowed McDonald’s to grow to 1,000 locations in just over 12 years. 

Mackenzie Martin: Faced with the restaurant’s sheer ubiquity, it was easy for the public to just assume that McDonald’s did it all first. And Kroc didn’t disabuse them. 

David Hogan: To believe the stories of Ray Kroc, he invented fast food. And of course, that is essentially the message that people get today is that McDonald’s was the revolutionary factor in the fast-food industry. 

Mackenzie Martin: Today, there are more than 40,000 McDonald’s worldwide. Meanwhile, there are fewer than 400 White Castles–mostly in the New York area and the Midwest–just a blip by fast food standards. 

Roman Mars: To understand just how small White Castle’s geographical and cultural footprint is nowadays, look no further than Wichita, the city where the company was founded. White Castle left Wichita in 1938. Now the nearest one is over 300 miles away. 

Mackenzie Martin: I recently went to Wichita to see the first ever White Castle location literally on Main Street. The original building is long gone. In its place is this large bank. For many years, I was told people would stop in and ask the tellers about the history. But when I arrived, the bank was boarded up. Eventually, Denise Sherman let me into the bank. She’s the executive director for the Kansas African American Museum, who now owns the building. 

Denise Sherman: This is the actual White Castle plaque. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Okay. It says, “Site of the original White Castle opened March 10th, 1921.” It’s got a photo here. 

Mackenzie Martin: She showed me how hidden inside the empty building, next to discarded desks and other furniture, was an ode to White Castle bolted to the wall. But once we were there, Denise didn’t have a lot to say about it. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): So, when did you find out that this was a former White Castle? 

Denise Sherman: I knew a long time ago. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Did you grow up here? 

Denise Sherman: Mmhmm. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Do you have any thoughts on the White Castle history here? 

McDonald’s: It’s a shame we don’t have one here. But we will honor that and still keep that plaque there. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): I also don’t have to keep asking you questions about White Castle if you don’t have anything. 

Denise Sherman: I don’t know if I can add anything else to it. It’s just one of those things. 

Mackenzie Martin: Now, you might think that Denise is an outlier–that Wichita is surely lousy with Wichitans who love to boast about how they invented fast food. But no. While in Wichita, I tried to gauge the public’s civic appreciation of White Castle and its contribution to fast food history. And although I did find a small handful of fans, mostly, the situation was pretty bleak. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Well, what do you think of is, like, the first burger chain that you can think of in America? Like, if you had to guess, what’s the first burger chain? What comes to mind? 

Craig Glass: McDonald’s. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): McDonald’s? Do you think there’s a fan base for White Castle here? 

Samantha Camden: No. 

Hannah Crickman: Probably not. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): It’s not here anymore. 

Samantha Camden: Yeah. 

Hannah Crickman: I don’t like oniony burgers anyway, so I’m not a huge White Castle fan, so that’s fine with me. 

Mackenzie Martin: Now, if you spend any time in the Midwest, this all might seem a little strange because there is nothing the residents of a midwestern town love more than finding something–anything to brag about. And Wichita is no exception. They just don’t brag about White Castle. And there is at least one big reason for this. 

Sam Morris: This is the Pizza Hut Museum. This is the actual original building. 

Mackenzie Martin: Sam Morris is director of staff development and special initiatives at Wichita State University, where–yes–there is a museum dedicated to Pizza Hut. 

Roman Mars: Pizza Hut was started in Wichita in 1958. And while it’s not technically the first American pizza chain, it predates all the most famous ones today: Little Caesars, Domino’s, Papa John’s… Today, it has more than 19,000 restaurants worldwide. That’s 50 times as large as White Castle. 

Sam Morris: There’s various different memorabilia in here. The original cash register is around the corner here. They’ve got this pair of sweet sneakers. I think they only got 50 made. But what they’re supposed to do is you’d click the tongue, and it would order you a pizza. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Wait. What? 

Sam Morris: Yeah, so pretty ridiculous. But there’s all kinds of those types of things. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): So, there’s a Pizza Hut Barbie? Let’s go see that. 

Sam Morris: There is a Pizza Hut Ken as well, but he’s right now in storage. 

Mackenzie Martin: During the tour, I was honestly kind of pissed. Why wasn’t the original White Castle this well preserved? Where was its fancy museum? Where was its Ken doll? But I couldn’t be too angry because even if it is a semi obscure cultural punchline, the truth is that today White Castle is not struggling. Its definition of success is just a bit different than most of its competitors. 

Roman Mars: White Castle is still family owned, but it’s no longer trying to pitch itself as the definitive fast-food chain. Instead, it’s found something else to sell. 

Jamie Richardson: You know, our vision as a family-owned business is to feed the souls of Craver generations everywhere. 

Mackenzie Martin: Jamie Richardson is an executive at White Castle headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. He is married to a fourth generation Ingram, and he leaves no room for confusion about the company’s current strategy. 

Jamie Richardson: I’m vice president of marketing for Restaurants and Retail. But really my unofficial title is Keeper of the Krave. 

Roman Mars: Over the years, the company has patiently developed a cult following–people who will go to any lengths to get their hands on a White Castle slider. 

Mackenzie Martin: The fact that you can’t always find one nearby now actually works to their advantage. It’s kind of like the fast-food equivalent of an outlet mall. Once you’re finally there, the whole point is to go nuts and consume as many of those tiny square sliders as possible–something, as Jamie explained, they make sure is always easy to do. 

Jamie Richardson: So, you can buy a sack of ten or get a Crave Clutch with 20, Crave Case with 30, or Crave Crate with 100. I’m still working on the Crave Palette–maybe someday. That’s 6,982. If you’re interested, please call ahead. But, yeah, it keeps it fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. 

Mackenzie Martin: This approach has earned White Castle an extremely loyal fan base. When White Castle opened up a new location in Orlando, Florida in 2020, customers camped out overnight and waited in line for six hours. And for those who just can’t wait that long, there’s also a version of their favorite slider in the frozen food aisle. 

Roman Mars: White Castle even has an exclusive Craver’s Hall of Fame for its most devoted fans. 

Cravers Hall of Fame: In a small room behind an undisclosed door, a group of White Castle staff sift through thousands of applications to determine who has what it takes to be inducted into the Craver’s Hall of Fame. 

Roman Mars: Applications are evaluated by a panel of judges according to four criteria: loyalty to the White Castle brand, creative presentation of the story, uniqueness and originality of the content, and extent and magnitude of the author’s crave. 

Mackenzie Martin: Inductees are flown to Columbus, Ohio, for a formal ceremony at White Castle headquarters–a building which one Hall of Famer described as “Willy Wonka-esque.” In addition to a giant wooden throne in the lobby, there’s also a two-story spiral slide. 

Jamie Richardson: So, there’s an emotional connection to these fans that’s real. And at the end of the day, we don’t try to be like everybody else. 

Mackenzie Martin: All of which helps keep White Castle customers coming back again and again and again. 

Jeremy Brooks: And you can buy them in the grocery store freezer frozen. It will get you by in a pinch, but it’s not the same. 

Mackenzie Martin: That’s Jeremy Brooks, the White Castle superfan who lives in Kansas City, where there are–remember–no White Castles, which is why, even though he may not be in the Craver’s Hall of Fame, he and his friends still make the pilgrimage to the nearest White Castle location. 

Roman Mars: In Columbia, Missouri–a four-hour round trip. 

Mackenzie Martin: So, is this something that is very premeditated or is it spontaneous? 

Jeremy Brooks: I would say more spontaneous than premeditated. You know, it’s, like, a Friday night. Everybody’s off of work. It’s like, “All right, whoever’s car has the, you know, the most available room or is in best condition as the case might be with some of us–and just hit the road.”

Mackenzie Martin: Is this in any way inspired by a certain movie? 

Jeremy Brooks: My, uh… If you want to call an “addiction,” call it what it is. My fascination and my love for White Castle existed long before said movie existed, although that definitely did not hurt things at all. 

Mackenzie Martin: At the end of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, there’s this moment. Harold and Kumar have spent all night trying to make it to a White Castle location when they finally see one in the distance. And Kumar starts this motivational speech about why his parents immigrated to this country in the first place. 

Kumar: They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals–a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments…

Mackenzie Martin: It’s incredibly cheesy, but it does take on new meaning when you realize that what he’s referring to is White Castle’s legacy. 

Kumar: This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night–it’s about the American dream. 

Roman Mars: Because even if it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, we live in the world White Castle built–one in which, whether you’re on the road or in a new city, you’re able to get exactly the thing you’re hungering for and to have it taste just the way you remember every time. After the break, Mackenzie is back to explain why every year, thousands of your fellow Americans head to White Castle for Valentine’s Day. When you love someone, you protect them in the best ways you can. SimpliSafe Home Security is an advanced system that protects every inch of your home. It’s backed by 24/7 professional monitoring for fast emergency response for less than $1.00 a day. As my kids get older and people come and go at different times and all hours of the night, what I love about SimpliSafe is it just gives me a bird’s eye view to check in, if I need to, to know what is going on in my home. It gives me that kind of peace of mind. SimpliSafe was named Best Home Security Systems of 2024 by U.S. News and World Report and offers everything you need for whole home protection, including HD cameras for indoors and outdoors, advanced motion sensors and entry sensors to protect doors, windows, and rooms, and a collection of hazard sensors that detect fire, flooding, and more. Order now to get 20% off any new SimpliSafe system with Fast Protect monitoring. Don’t wait. Visit That’s There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. Want to make your next trip unforgettable? Book a GetYourGuide travel experience. Choose from over 100,000 travel experiences in the U.S. and around the world with GetYourGuide. I love to travel. And you can do a little bit of reading and just show up at a place and get something out of where you are. But if you really want to connect with your destination–if you really want to find those under the radar gems and get that local history–you need a guide. You can make memories all over the globe with GetYourGuide’s locally vetted, expertly curated experiences. Discover and book your next unforgettable travel experience with This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. A common misconception about relationships is that they have to be easy to be right. But sometimes the best ones happen when both people put in the work to make them great. Therapy can be a place to work through the challenges you face in all your relationships, whether with friends, work, your significant other–anyone. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Become your own soulmate, whether you’re looking for one or not. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in-one website platform for entrepreneurs to stand out and succeed online. Everyone knows the holidays can take a toll on your bank account. If you’re looking for creative ways to increase revenue and give your family and friends the holiday treats they deserve, then you need to get started with Squarespace’s new feature, Squarespace Courses. So, say you are a podcaster. Squarespace has all the tools you need to create and sell your own online course in podcasting. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach techniques and skills, and tailor your course with the powerful, built-in Fluid Engine Editor. With Squarespace Courses, you can create engaging content your audience will love. Then simply add a paywall and set the price. Plus, you can charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Turn your creativity into income with Squarespace Courses. Head to for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, go to to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. That’s So, we’re back with the reporter/producer, Mackenzie Martin. Hey, Mackenzie. 

Mackenzie Martin: Hey, Roman. So, as you know, Valentine’s Day is coming up. What are your feelings on this particular holiday? 

Roman Mars: You know, mixed to good. I don’t know. 

Mackenzie Martin: Yeah, I get that. Well, I personally like the aesthetic and the chocolate centric aspect of it. But I find being in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day just a horrible experience–to the point that I cannot go out. The stakes are just way too high. You’ve got these expensive prefix menus. Everyone’s supposed to be having this super romantic night. It’s just a lot of pressure. And that is why, Roman, when I found out that White Castle has a unique kind of Valentine’s Day tradition, I was immediately hooked. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, well, you have to be intrigued by that. So, tell me more. 

Mackenzie Martin: So, in essence, every year, on Valentine’s Day only, all participating White Castle locations in the country transform into a fine dining establishment. But it’s not stuffy because it’s still White Castle. So, just suddenly it has table service. It’s got menus, white tablecloths, candlelight, roses… And they’ve been doing this for a long time–since 1991–so we’re coming up on nearly 35 years. And I first heard about this tradition from Adam Chandler, our fast-food expert from the episode. I presume you remember him? 

Roman Mars: Of course. Of course. 

Mackenzie Martin: So, I don’t think I made this super clear in the episode, but I cannot stress enough how fascinated Adam is by fast food. 

Adam Chandler: This is my dog Arby after the roast beef place. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Arby? Oh, my gosh. I love that your dog is named Arby.

Adam Chandler: Arby. Come on. Sit.

Mackenzie Martin: Nine years ago, Valentine’s Day was approaching much like it is now. And Adam had just started dating someone, which is kind of an awkward thing. 

Adam Chandler: You know, Valentine’s Day felt like it was a lot of pressure to put on the early moments of a relationship. 

Mackenzie Martin: So, he had heard about this Valentine’s Day tradition at White Castle, but he’d never gone. And he figured, “This is what I’ll do.” But he decided to keep it a surprise. 

Adam Chandler: And I said, “Wear comfortable clothes,” which is a red flag immediately in a romantic date situation. 

Roman Mars: Oh, I don’t know. Any sort of… Surprises make me nervous. Romantic style surprises make me extremely nervous. So, I’m very worried about this. 

Mackenzie Martin: I also hate surprises. And it’s also worth pointing out that this woman is a food writer. So, like, she went to culinary school. So, it was maybe a bit of a gamble for Adam to take her to a fast-food restaurant in the first place, let alone for this extremely romantic occasion. But his rationale was that it was almost like a litmus test. 

Adam Chandler: So, the idea that I would be able to take a date to a White Castle and have a good time seemed like, for the right person, an excellent experience. And for the wrong person, maybe it would tell me something about my relationship. 

Roman Mars: I’ll grant him that. It will tell you something about your relationship depending on how that goes. But I still am not sure if it’s the best idea to do this on Valentine’s Day. So, what happened? 

Mackenzie Martin: Well, they get there to this White Castle in Brooklyn, and it is no longer a normal White Castle. It is now, for one night of the year, declaring itself the “Love Castle.”

Roman Mars: Oh, my God. Okay. Love Castle. It’s perfect. Okay. Keep going. 

Mackenzie Martin: So just picture it. The whole restaurant is decked out with, like, paper hearts and red streamers and paper backgrounds with kisses on it. There’s this romantic playlist coming out of the speakers. The candles on the tables I mentioned earlier–albeit, like, LED candles, but still. And the hostess shows Adam and his date to their reserved table, gives them a menu, which is, of course, Valentine’s Day themed…

Roman Mars: Okay, tell me more about this because I can’t imagine what romantic dishes await them on the White Castle’s Valentine’s Day menu. 

Mackenzie Martin: I know, right? Well, I don’t know exactly what they serve that time, but this year, the Love Castle will be serving the Love Clutch Collection, which is a White Castle meal for two. Last year, they offered a special Sprite Love Castle Potion, which is this cherry vanilla version of sprite. Another year, they debuted a Strawberry Swirl Cheesecake on-a-stick–and that one actually ended up staying on the regular menu, so very classy. And on top of that, they have White Castle Valentine’s Day merch, too. So, we’ve got a White Castle scented candle, red heart-shaped Love Castle sunglasses… And there’s also my personal favorite, the Love Castle robe, which is this maroon, satin, kimono style robe with drawings of Cupid and sliders all over it. 

Roman Mars: Oh my. Okay, I think I see what they’re going for. It’s a little cheesy–a little over the top. And they just seem to be able to balance it all with a really good sense of humor. 

Mackenzie Martin: That’s a good way to put it. And that is why when Adam arrived at the Love Castle with his date and saw all of this–being the fast-food fan that he is–he was immediately charmed by the spectacle. 

Adam Chandler: The environment there can’t be beat. Everyone’s having a good time. And it just takes all the expectations away from what is normally, I think, an over pressured, overhyped, unnecessarily stressful event. 

Roman Mars: Well, you know, the fast-food writer with a dog named Arby likes it–no doubt about that–but what does his date think? 

Mackenzie Martin: She also liked it. 

Roman Mars: Okay. Thank God. Okay. 

Mackenzie Martin: In fact, it was such a success that his date is actually now his fiancée. And they have had White Castle for Valentine’s Day every year since. 

Roman Mars: Oh, that is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s amazing. 

Mackenzie Martin: And since this episode comes out the day before Valentine’s Day and they are, of course, doing it again this year, tomorrow will be their 10th time. 

Roman Mars: Oh, that’s so sweet. That’ll be their 10th White Castle anniversary. Well, mazel tov to them.

Mackenzie Martin: It’s a very beautiful thing. And it turns out that a lot of other people have also made this an annual tradition. One story that Adam told me that stuck out the most was this group of five women in Minnesota who are all widows. And they go every year to reminisce about their late husbands. 

Adam Chandler: And I think that that, again, kind of speaks to what it means to have places that are accessible and affordable and democratic, that are welcoming to anyone on a day like Valentine’s Day, which can be isolating and lonely. There’s not a lot of that left, I think, in American life. There aren’t a lot of meeting places and where you see all swaths of humanity uniting, especially over something as intimate as a meal. 

Roman Mars: You know, Adam’s making a really good point here because I think it’s pretty easy to look at the extreme commodification of food in this way and feel like this mass-produced food is made for mass-produced people who have, you know, mass-produced feelings and it’s all the same. And, you know, the food is treated like a product–you’re kind of treated like a product. However, I have been in a car with a bunch of kids in the back chanting, “Nuggets, nuggets, nuggets!” And it’s a joyful experience that they can all have this thing, and we can have fun with it and enjoy it. And it’s just kind of great. And fast food can be both those things at once. 

Mackenzie Martin: Yeah, I feel like fast food is kind of all of the worst things and all the best things about America packed into one ten-sack of sliders. 

Roman Mars: I still think ten sliders seems like too much. 

Mackenzie Martin: It’s really not. Now, I do need to point out that White Castle isn’t the only fast-food establishment that pulls out extra stops for Valentine’s Day. Maybe you’ve seen this around as well, Roman. There are reports of individual McDonald’s locations doing something like this. They always wanted to take a leaf out of White Castle’s playbook. But these chains have had mixed results. Notoriously pizza places like Papa John’s and Pizza Hut tried to sell heart-shaped pizzas back in 2017 and got a lot of social media hate when customers received horribly misfigured pizzas or ones that only became heart shaped because they showed up with a slice missing. So, this is one area where Adam says White Castle continues to dominate. 

Roman Mars: Well, that makes sense to me. Like, if you’re going to do Valentine’s Day associated with a fast-food restaurant, White Castle sounds like the safest bet and also kind of the perfect amount of, like, kitchen style that they seem to have perfected over the decades. 

Mackenzie Martin: Totally. But Adam did warn me that Valentine’s Day is now in under 24 hours, so if you haven’t planned ahead, don’t think you can just waltz into a White Castle tomorrow night and expect to be seated. 

Adam Chandler: You have to book early. I book, like, three or four weeks in advance sometimes ahead of time because it sells out. The times sell out. I’m not joking. This is a hot ticket. 

Roman Mars: So, have you booked your reserved seats for Valentine’s Day this year? 

Mackenzie Martin: Definitely not because you may remember when I started reporting this episode, I had never actually been to a White Castle at all. 

Roman Mars: That’s right. That’s right. But, like, since then, have you gone? 

Mackenzie Martin: I have. I’m happy to report that I recently rectified this. When I finished all the reporting for this episode, I had to see what the fuss was about. You know? So, this past November, I finally had my first nonfrozen, in-person White Castle experience. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): I am going to get two 1921 sliders? 

White Castle Employee: American cheese okay? 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): Yeah. And I’m also going to get the original cheese slider. 

Roman Mars: Okay. So, what was the verdict? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Are you now a Craver? Are you potentially going to be in the Craver Hall of Fame? 

Mackenzie Martin: It was awesome. I get it now. I get it. 

Roman Mars: That’s great. 

Mackenzie Martin (field tape): I think these are way better in real life. I think the bun is way better. The pickles are really good, too. 

Roman Mars: Well, this is awesome. I’m so glad that you could do this whole story and then find at the end that you actually enjoy the burger because that would be such a disaster if you didn’t. Thank you so much for bringing this story. It was just great. It was great working with you.

Mackenzie Martin: Thanks, Roman. 

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was reported this week by Mackenzie Martin, produced by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real with additional music by Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Neufeld. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Neena Pathak, Sarah Baik, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. A different version of this story first aired on the KCUR Studios podcast, A People’s History of Kansas City, and was lovingly edited by Gabe Rosenberg and Suzanne Hogan. People’s History has got a ton of fascinating stories all from Kansas City’s peculiar corner of the Midwest. We highly recommend you check it out. Adam Chandler’s book about America’s fast-food kingdom is called Drive-Thru Dreams. And for even more about White Castle, you can check out Selling ’em by the Sack by David Hogan. Find them wherever you find your books. You can find us on all the usual social media sites, as well as our very own Discord server–we have a link to that on our website–as well as every past episode of 99PI at Kohler Smart Toilets combine sculptural design with intuitive technology to deliver a new standard of clean and comfort. You could personalize every element of this fancy toilet, from the integrated warm water cleansing to the heated seat and warm air dryer. A touchless lid, seat, and flush deliver convenience, while the self-sanitizing bidet one offers peace of mind. I have one of these fancy robot toilets in my house. And I’m telling you, it is the greatest thing I’ve ever purchased. I love it every single day. Explore the complete line up at and discover what you’ve been missing. 



Adapted from an episode of KCUR’s A People’s History of Kansas City, produced by Mackenzie Martin and edited by Gabe Rosenberg and Suzanne Hogan.

Additional music by Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Neufeld.

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