It’s a bittersweet day for Wichita — one in which the city can celebrate the fact that a homegrown restaurant concept has lasted for an entire century while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that it doesn’t do local burger fans one bit of good.
Today — March 10 — is White Castle’s 100th birthday. On this day in 1921, Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson opened the first White Castle restaurant at 110 E. First St. in Wichita, selling small, square-shaped burgers by the sack for five cents apiece.
A century later, the chain is still going strong and operates more than 360 restaurants across the country. But none of them are in Wichita. In fact, White Castle hasn’t operated here since 1938.
The earliest roots of White Castle date back to 1916, when Anderson opened a five-stool stand on East Douglas selling “pressed beef sandwiches” served on dinner rolls and topped with pickles and onions. They were so easy to eat, people dubbed them sliders.”
By 1920, he had expanded to four stands, and that’s when he took on Ingram — a friend and local insurance salesman — as a partner. The two decided to build more hamburger stands and to call them White Castle. They designed buildings that looked like little castles and opened the first restaurant at First and Main. They’d continue to expand over the next decade, opening all over Wichita at addresses including 111 E. Second, 112 S. St. Francis, 146 N. Emporia and more.
The popular burger restaurant, which White Castle says was the first hamburger chain in the United States, began to expand outside of Wichita, and by 1934, there were 123 White Castles operating in 156 cities. The headquarters were relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where they remain today. Anderson retired, leaving the business to Ingram. The last White Castle in Wichita closed four years later, and longtime White Castle manager A.J. “Jimmie” King bought three of the restaurants and renamed them Kings-X. He went on to establish his own local burger chain and at one point had 10 stands around town.
Wichita never forgot White Castle, nor did White Castle forget Wichita. In 2011, the chain marked its 90th birthday by returning home to throw a party in the parking lot of the Dillons at Central and Rock, where for two frenzied hours it sold sliders for 90 cents apiece. Thousands of people showed up and stood in long lines to get a taste.
COVID-19 is preventing the White Castle from throwing any type of huge 100th birthday party, the chain has said, but cities that still have White Castles are selling special beverages and cake on a stick. The restaurant chain is planning a virtual birthday party on May 15.
White Castle representatives have said over the years that they would never rule out returning to Wichita, but there’s been no movement in that direction. White Castle is preparing to open the chain’s biggest store yet in Orlando, Florida, this spring.
Wichitans who want to celebrate don’t have many options, unless they want to road trip to the nearest White Castle restaurant in Columbia, Missouri.
Here’s another idea: White Castle sliders have been sold in the freezer section of grocery stores since 1987, so there’s always that. Wichitans could grab a box, heat some up, head over to the Sunflower Bank branch at 201 N. Main, which sits on the site of the first White Castle, and raise a tiny square burger in salute.