There is no disputing it. The oldest hamburger restaurant chain in the United States is White Castle. The first White Castle restaurant opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921. The first McDonald’s didn’t open until 1948, by comparison.
The White Castle chain was started by Walter A. Anderson, who already owned three hamburger stands, and was able to procure a partner, Billy Ingram, who invested $700 so that Anderson could open a fourth stand. Thus was born “The White Castle System of Eating Houses.” Known for its small square burgers known as sliders, they were able to make 18 burgers for each pound of beef and sold them each for a nickel. By 1930 there were over 100 White Castle stores.
The early sliders didn’t have holes in them like they do today. This happened in the late 1940’s when an employee noticed that burgers with holes in them cooked faster, and didn’t need to be flipped. This enabled the company to turn out more burgers, more quickly. They patented the 5-hole meat patty in 1951. More than just a small burger, they are cooked on a bed of steamed onions, so that the onion flavor permeates the burgers. Toward the end of the cooking time, the top buns are placed on the cooking burgers, so that they get steamed, oniony, and a bit moist. This moist, soft, and somewhat greasy texture enables the tasty sliders to “slide down your throat” in a unique way. Although many restaurants now feature small burgers they call sliders, these diminutive hockey pucks with a burger-to-bun ratio that is too high, have no relationship to the real White Castle Slider.
Although McDonald’s makes a lot of its “billions of burgers sold,” White Castle was the first chain to sell a million burgers, and then hit a billion burgers sold. The chain has not expanded as aggressively as some others, not wanting to franchise or take on debt, and there are 412 stores in the United States. For comparison, there are around 13,000 McDonald’s. However, White Castle now sells boxed frozen Sliders in grocery stores. I’ve had them on occasion when I needed a White Castle fix, and they are pretty good. As Harold and Kumar can tell you, getting to a White Castle for fresh sliders can be a bit difficult.
The OTHER Little Square Burger
Although not many people outside the South do not know this, there is another little square burger other than White Castle. With over 425 locations in the South and Southeast, Krystal’s boasts some pretty darn good “sliders” of its own, are also steamed in onions, but have no holes. Krystal’s was founded in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee by Rody Davenport, Jr. and J. Glen Sherril. The company claims it is the second oldest “quick service restaurant chain” in the U.S., although I haven’t researched this further to find out exactly what they mean. Regardless, when I was growing up in the south, a 12 burger sack of Krystal’s burger was akin to heaven on Earth. I’ve had Krystal’s and White Castle’s, and, to me, they are both equally addictive.