In 1921, Billy Ingram, from Wichita, Kan., was selling insurance and real estate to businesses around town. One of his clients was a thriving hamburger stand and, impressed by its success, Ingram proposed a partnership. Soon, his family took over the burger stand and turned it into a restaurant named White Castle.
Today, nearly 90 years later, White Castle is a household name. All of its more than 420 locations are still run by the Ingram family, none are franchised. Dave Rife (pictured above), Ingram’s great grandson, is the company’s assistant vice president and, as of late, a modern day celebrity.
“I was featured on the CBS show Undercover Boss in February,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and a great way to highlight our team members.”
Ingram died when Rife was three years old, but the burger tycoon’s memory is still very much alive.
“We run the business today just like my great grandfather did back then,” Rife said. “We have a great track record and have never laid anyone off.”
How has White Castle stayed successful throughout the years?
“Our business model is all about slow and steady growth,” Rife said. “We don’t have any debt and always pay out of cash flow. As my great grandfather used to say, ‘it’s hard to go out of business if you don’t owe anyone.’”
Focusing on employees
“We’ve never underestimated the power of our people,” he said. “We listen to what they tell us. They are the ones on the front line of our organization and come up with great ideas.
“We look out for our employees and supply all of our full-time team members with health care, pension funds and profit sharing opportunities. As my great grandfather used to say, ‘happy employees mean happy customers.’”
Staying true to the business
“We have always stuck to our core competencies,” Rife said. “We sell hamburgers. We haven’t changed our recipes or our format. We make our own patties and bake our own buns. Our customers know what to expect."
“We make it a point to celebrate our successes,” he said. “Whenever a team member reaches 25 years of service, we fly them to Columbus, Ohio (headquarters since the 1930s) for a week-long celebration of wining and dining.
“Just last December, we had our team member, Elaine Miseta, retire after 67 years of service. Her anniversary date is June 8, so now that day is known at Elaine Miseta Day at White Castle.”
What does the future hold for the burger chain?
“We are busy opening new restaurant concepts,” Rife said. “This year, we opened Deckers in Tennessee, which sells grilled sandwiches, Blaze Modern BBQ in Lafayette, Indiana; and Laughing Noodle in Springfield, Ohio.”
According to Rife, White Castle will remain family owned for years to come.
“We are fortunate to be family owned,” he said. “That way, we are able to make decisions based on long term growth opportunities, not short term earnings.”
Katie Morell is a freelance writer based in Chicago, specializing in small business concerns.