Fast food chain White Castle is stepping into the plant-base meat game by debuting a new slider from Impossible Foods. The plant-based meat is made from potato protein, coconut oil and wheat protein. Sounds dull? Maybe. But it gets the characteristic texture and bloody look of meat. And for meat lovers, it even smells and tastes like ground beef. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talked to White Castle CEO Lisa Ingram about the company's latest innovation. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: What's it like to be, what are you, like, the fourth generation running this company?
Lisa Ingram: I am. I am the fourth-generation family member to run the company, the first female. And it's always an honor every day to walk in the doors and be at the helm of a fourth-generation family business — 97 years old this year.
Ryssdal: There are probably no small number of people listening to this program, without casting aspersions on your company, who don't know what White Castle is.
Ingram: Oh, that's awful.
Ryssdal: I apologize in advance. I'm sorry.
Ingram: So White Castle was founded in 1921 by my great-grandfather. And we are the original slider, so when you hear the term "slider,” White Castle was the very first in 1921. And we have evolved over those years to be a company that continues to sell great 2-by-2-inch hamburgers but also sells a wide variety of other products, including an amazing breakfast sandwich, a really savory grilled chicken, a wonderful veggie slider and lots of lots of other products that I could spend a lot of time talking about.
Ryssdal: Let me ask you a question about innovation in the fast food space, specifically hamburgers and what it is that you guys do. Tell me about the Impossible Burger, how it came to pass. First of all, tell folks what it is, remind folks what it is.
Ingram: So the Impossible Slider is a plant-based product that looks and tastes very, very similar to beef. And we were really excited to be able to partner with Impossible Foods to be the first chain restaurant to launch this product. And we're really excited about being able to offer that to our customers, to offer even more variety.
Ryssdal: Did you pitch them or did they pitch you?
Ingram: We are always looking at different trends in different companies that are being innovative. We had some ideas of who we wanted to talk to, and Impossible was one of them. And as we got to know them a little better and they got to know us, I think it was a mutual agreement that this would be a really interesting and fun partnership for us to do.
Ryssdal: Did you all cook some up in the test kitchen downstairs? And who got the final say? It must’ve been you, right?
Ingram: Actually, I have a very, very smart team, and they had the final say, but I certainly agreed with the direction of putting this into test. And it's in 140 stores now, but it soon could be across all of our restaurants.
Ryssdal: Which is 400ish, right?
Ingram: Yes, we have almost 400 locations throughout the Midwest and the East Coast.
Ryssdal: When you were thinking about, I guess, expanding the menu — 'cause that's what it's doing, and it's no small thing for a restaurant company to do — why did you say to yourselves or what was the process by which you said, "You know what, we need is a plant-based option on this menu"?
Ingram: It really starts by listening to our customers as we try to do with all of our innovations. So we have a lot of customers that have grown up on White Castle and that love White Castle and continue to love White Castle. We also have some customers that grew up on White Castle but have decided to be vegetarians. So they would still come back to White Castle, and they would ask if they could have what we called a cheese slider, where we would put a slice of cheese, some of the onions from our grill and serve that. That evolved into us saying, "You know what, maybe we should offer a veggie slider." This was a natural evolution for us when we found out that Impossible Foods was creating a plant-based product that looked and tastes like beef both for the people that like meats and for the people that are choosing to have a vegetarian diet.
Ryssdal: When you look at McDonald's and Burger King and Wendy's and all the rest, do you think of them as competition or are they just, like, an annoyance for you, and you are steadfast that "We were here first and we're doing it right"?
Ingram: Well, you know, we really focus on our business model and what things make us unique. So we're privately held, we are company owned, which is different than many other players in the fast-food industry. And we really think that's important. We focus on how we can provide great quality products to our customers. If they're in a restaurant market where one of our restaurants are or whether they are able to get our retail products because we also make all of those products as well. And those are sold across all 50 states across the nation.
Ryssdal: Do I have it right that everybody on the executive team of White Castle started making fries and burgers, basically?
Ingram: Not everybody. But one of the stats that I'm really proud of is we have 450 restaurant leadership positions. So all the way from a general manager that runs one store, and all the way up to the gentleman that reports directly to me. There's 450 of those positions, and 442 of those people in those positions started behind the counter and worked their way up. And so the vast majority of our team members have been with us for a long time. Our average tenure of our general managers is 21 years, our average turnover is like 1 or 2 percent, which is very unheard of in the restaurant industry. So we're really proud of that fact that people come to White Castle, and they think that they may only work for three months and they end up working for three years or maybe even 30 or 40 years.
Ryssdal: How often you eat at White Castle?
Ingram: I probably eat there about once a week. I had a double cheeseburger yesterday, and that's always my favorite go-to.
Listen to the rest of this interview on our podcast, Corner Office from Marketplace.