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Walter Anderson - The Founder of White Castle

Some of the information in this post was provided by Jerry Weakley




Who invented the fast food hamburger? When and where did this momentous event happen? Was it The McDonald Brothers in 1948 in San Bernardino, California? The answer is largely lost to history, but the event happened much earlier and much closer to home, and of course Baker University is part of the story.

Walter Lenus Anderson was born November 26, 1880 near the town of Saint Mary’s, Kansas to Alexander and Louisa Svensdotter Anderson. Alexander and Louisa were immigrants having arrived in the United States from Sweden in 1869. In 1870, Alexander had found work as a laborer in Topeka, but by 1880 he was listed as a farmer in Wabaunsee County (across the Kaw from St. Mary’s) and he and Louisa had three sons, George, Harry and Ernest. Later that year, Walter was born followed two years later by the fifth son, Emanuel. By 1900, the family had moved to Greenwood County, south of Emporia, near the town of Eureka, Kansas. At this point, Walter decided to follow in his older brother George’s footsteps and go to college. George had graduated from Bethany College in 1895 and went on to have a career as a teacher and newspaperman, but Walter decided to go to Baker.

He entered Baker as a 21-year-old freshman in 1901. To support himself, he worked as a janitor and lived in an abandoned house. The house was unheated and when he left Baker in 1903, he said that the freezing conditions in the house caused him to leave. He spent the next five years moving around the country and from job to job, washing dishes and cooking in restaurants. In 1905, his father tried to get him to settle down by buying him a restaurant in Marquette, Kansas, but within a year he sold the restaurant. Next he tried show business by organizing a thirteen-person traveling stage show with a cast and an orchestra, but the show folded after three weeks and he caught a freight going to Topeka where he got a job cooking in a hotel. His next job was as a cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad, moving out west to Nevada and later Utah.

While in Utah he met, and on June 30, 1908, married Mary Emily Firth. Mary was also the offspring of an immigrant, John Burton Firth, who arrived from England in 1863 and eventually settled with his wife Mary Duncan Firth in Summit County, Utah near Park City. The following year a daughter, Edna Evelyn Anderson, was born and by 1910 the family was living in Salt Lake City where Walt was a cook in a restaurant. In 1911, Walt made the decision to move his family back to Kansas settling in Wichita where his son, Walter Hoyt Anderson, was born. Walt found work as a cook in a diner at 110 W Douglas.

Of course, Walt was familiar with cooking what was known as hamburger, but it was not the same as what we know as a hamburger today. In those days, a hamburger was shaped more like what we would call a meatball and was served between two slices of bread. Hamburger was considered a low grade of meat and most restaurants did not serve it and the food carts that did serve it to lower income people found that they preferred sausage. So, the story goes that one day Walt became frustrated with a slow cooking meatball that was sticking to the pan and smashed the meatball flat with his spatula. He found that it cooked faster and many of his customers preferred the flattened hamburger to the traditional style - the modern hamburger was born.

As the popularity of his new approach to hamburgers grew, Walt became more convinced that he needed to start a business of his own. In 1916, he opened his five-stool hamburger stand in an abandoned trolley car at 800 East Douglas. Then sign outside simply read “Hamburgers 5¢”. Money was tight. His meat supplier agreed to give him a day’s worth of meat on credit provided that he was repaid every day. Walt also discovered that he was quite a huckster. According to his wife, he would stand in front of his stand and yell “hamburgers – a nickel a piece.”

Despite struggling to stay business, Walt continued to innovate. In order to cook in volume more efficiently, Walt laid a flat piece of sheet iron over the stove top to enable him to cook more burgers at once. On the first day he used this method he quickly found that excess grease spilled onto the floor and so he fashioned gutters to catch the grease. Of course, Walt realized that he had to overcome the public’s perception that hamburger was a low-quality meat. He setup his diner so that he could grind the meat in full view of the patrons. He also placed the grill just behind the service counter so that everyone could watch while he cooked. He cooked his hamburgers and served them with fried onions which was unusual at the time. Walt also invented the hamburger bun and contracted with a local bakery to supply him with fresh buns every day. He also invented a system of cooking which involved frying the hamburgers on top of a bed of onions and water with the buns placed on top of the burger which allowed the flavors to permeate the bun. He realized that cleanliness was the key to overcoming the stigma associated with hamburgers and “I cleaned up my place making it neat and attractive.”

And there was one other major innovation. In his own words, “Soon I noticed that little boys would come into my place asking for half a dozen lots to take out. These lads were not the street urchin types, so I became curious and investigated, to learn that they would take the hamburgers around the corner and climb into big limousines. Their mothers were ashamed to drive up to the front of my dinky place and would park their cars around the corner and send their lads after the sandwiches.” Thus, the concept of takeout was born and that led to a new slogan “Buy ‘em by the Sack.”

As he accumulated enough capital, Walt opened thee more locations in Wichita. His business was prospering, and he was being recognized as an up and coming businessman. He burnished his image by building “an imposing $12,000 home on the Hill . . . which commands a view of the east end.” He realized that his concept had the potential to become a major business, but he needed more capital to expand rapidly. In leasing some of the sites for his diners, Walt had worked with a local real estate broker, Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, who he met through his Masonic lodge activities where Walt served as an officer. In 1921, Walt took Ingram on as a partner and with $700 they formed a new business which was soon to be named the White Castle System of Eating Houses with Walt as president and Billy as vice president.




While Walt was a great salesman, Billy’s forte was merchandising and together they set out to transform the image of the business. They chose the name White Castle with the “White” emphasizing cleanliness and the “Castle” signifying strength. They came up with a standardized structure to their locations modeling their whitewashed buildings after the castle-like Chicago Water Tower. Inside all of the surfaces were white or stainless steel. All of the staff wore white uniforms with black ties. Their use of a system of cooking implied a standardized assembly line like approach. The business began to grow rapidly with locations blanketing Wichita. They then looked beyond Wichita to nearby El Dorado and then to Omaha, a market Billy was familiar with having lived there early in his career. The next natural step was Kansas City and then St. Louis. By 1925 they had expanded from four to forty-four locations. In 1926, they opened 20 locations in Minneapolis and in 1927 they took the dramatic step of going east of the Mississippi opening locations in Louisville, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Finally, to close out the decade they moved into Columbus, Chicago, New York City, New Jersey and Detroit.

Just as they had standardized the operation of their restaurants, Walt and Billy began building a standard corporate culture. They rigorously trained their managers and sent the managers that had become immersed in the corporate culture in Wichita out to open new markets so that the culture was spread far and wide. Walt and Billy felt it was important that they were visible to everyone in the organization, so they regularly visited each location. To do this, they acquired a company plane and Walt himself became a pilot. This was happening as Wichita was becoming known as the “Air Capital of the World” because of the numerous aircraft companies that were opening in town. In fact, Walt was so enamored with aviation that he became one of the founders of the Swift Aircraft Company in 1929.

Despite their success, big changes would take place in the company during the new decade. During the twelve years of his presidency, Walt was known to all of his employees and was highly regarded as the cheerful ambassador from the home office who would regale everyone with his stories particularly of his adventures in flying around the country. He often would take some of his people on plane trips to see their cities from the air. Billy became the strategist and policymaker for the company and was much loved for his role, but Walt came from the same background in the restaurant business that most of his employees shared. Under his leadership the company had grown to over 100 locations by 1933. Despite his pivotal role in the company, Walt agreed to sell his 50% share of White Castle to Billy that same year. Several reasons have been put forth for his decision. Most prominent among these is the belief that Walt was convinced that aviation was the wave of the future and the restaurant business no longer held his interest as it once did. It is also possible that Walt was aware of the major strategic changes that Billy was contemplating for the company, changes that Walt was not completely in tune with. Fearing disappointment among While Castle employees, Walt’s departure from the company was not officially announced until two years later and then only in a passing reference in the company’s newsletter.

In 1934, Billy moved the company headquarters to Columbus, Ohio and subsequently closed all of the White Castle locations in Wichita and Omaha, their two smallest markets leaving only the locations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Minneapolis west of the Mississippi. In 2001, all of the locations in Kansas City were closed. Since then, the company has expanded to over 400 locations in the United States and has an almost cult like status among hamburger fans. Of course, the hamburger business has exploded during those intervening years with companies like McDonalds, that was started 27 years after White Castle, expanding to over 14,00 locations in the US. Part of this was due to Billy’s conservative philosophy of not taking on any debt or outside investors and not franchising its locations. White Castle’s growth has been funded exclusively by internally generated capital and remains a private company today owned by the Ingram family.

Walt went on to work with a number of Wichita based companies after he left the restaurant business, including the Swift Aircraft Company that he helped found. He died December 13, 1963 leaving a legacy of another Baker alumnus who made a difference in the world.

Sources

1. Hogan, David Gerard, Selling ‘em by the Sack, 1997

2. Dolly, Thomas C., The Wichita Wizard: Founder of White Castle, Bellevue College, 1991

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