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Hamburger Diaries: White Castle Vs. Krystal

Tuesday, 1 June, 2010

The story of the Hamburger in its modern form begins in 1916. Hired hand Walter Anderson smashed his meatballs flat against the short-order grill and served them on buttered, toasted bread. The Hamburg Steak, Steak Tartare, Hamburger sandwich and even what is now known as loose meat existed before this time. Anderson created the quick-service Hamburger.

Chastised for his modest creation he set out on his own. By 1919 he operated a modest chain of tiny shops offering his proto-burger, potato chips and coffee located in high-traffic areas and near transit points including train stations. Cook Billy Ingram noted that many folk were disinclined to eat in such modest surroundings due to hygiene concerns. In my imagining, Anderson took young Billy under his wing and they had a man-to-man conversation. By the time the whisky was gone, they had plotted out a wholly new concept in restaurant service, preparation and presentation.

Among Anderson and Ingram’s innovations, the dedicated Hamburger bun, the use of stainless steel in preparation and service areas, and mass-production of a very limited menu with the intent to provide very quick service. Their innovation coalesced into a Wichita chain called White Castle. White Castle grew and even prospered during the depression. Ideas now taken for granted, consistent branding and packaging, uniform building design, the use of logos, advertising and coupons started with White Castle in 1921.

Even if they didn’t think to offer cheese until 1962.

To assure such consistency, all White Castle restaurants are owned and operated by the System, even today. This inevitably limited the growth of the company geographically. Moving into a single new metropolis at a time, with local central-preparation facilities and opening several restaurants within a town on the same day. During the depression and into the war years, the White Castle System of service and presentation was widely noted and copied. The sole survivor from that era is Krystal.

Rody Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill opened their implementation of the White Castle System in a particularly depressed part of the world, Chattanooga, in 1932. The lawsuits and threats made by White Castle, particularly after the war, are now the stuff of legend. Somehow they didn’t get around to bothering Krystal until the chain was well established. Many theories abound as to why White Castle did not pursue Krystal into oblivion. The most established notion is a matter of geography. Although no documentation is known to exist, and no meeting of the management of both companies is known to have occurred, the consensus is that as long as Krystal remained in Dixie, White Castle agreed to leave them alone.

Worth noting is the difference in the signature product. White Castles are, as ever, stream grilled on a bed of onions and the modern Hamburger is three-inches squared. Krystal’s signature sandwich is a mundane fried burger, but small enough to evoke comparison to the Yankees. Over the years the menus evolved to the point where direct comparison between the chains may only be done on the basis of those tiny signature sandwiches.

This brings us to 1986.

White Castle opened five stores on the same day in Nashville, the largest city and capital of Krystal’s home state. The gentlemen’s agreement was broken but no one seemed to care. It is worth noting that the White Castle outlier into Nashville is their only presence in the South, save a modest but long-standing presence in Kentucky. The two remain divided by geography, Krystal’s growth through franchising, and the fact that the restaurant business is actually a minor preoccupation within the company for which White Castle is the most publicly conspicuous element.

I aspire to include within Hamburger Diaries a proper review of both White Castle and Krystal, due to their iconic status. However, I have no such opportunity at this time. The closest White Castle to my home may be found on Charlotte Ave at White Church Road in Nashville. Anomalously, it is across the street from Jack in the Box. We are living in a new era. To be clear: the frozen Castles available nationwide, while pleasant, are a poor substitute for the real thing.

The closest Krystal to me is much closer. Should I find myself driving through Killeen, Texas any time soon you’ll have something. Krystal has a major franchised presence in Dallas and environs, but I don’t even like to leave my house.

  1. Steven Green permalink
    Wednesday, 27 October, 2010 1:43


    I am in South Austin. If you ever want to split the cost of a trip to Krystal, let me know. We can drive to one any time. I think the one in Universal City (next to San Antonio) may be closer and easier to get to, since it is near I-35.

    Can also show you some of my favorite SA restaurants, especially Hung Fong Chinese (since 1939).


    • Friday, 29 October, 2010 18:24

      Mr. Green, I appreciate your gracious offer. As seen from the delay in my reply and the infrequency of my posting, my work life is dominating my time lately.

      I shall keep your recommendations in mind, but cannot join you for a much desired trip to Krystal any time soon.


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