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Minding the basic hamburger. White Castle's `beef cookies' still please crowds

Many things in life change at a rapid clip, but the White Castle hamburger isn't one of them. The tiny, square, Depression-era hamburger that first sold for just 5 cents in 1921, still costs only about 32 cents today. Weighing in at precisely seven-eighths of an ounce, the unique mini-burger and the slick, white ``porcelain palaces'' where they are sold have stubbornly refused to go out of style.

Quite the contrary, the little burgers with five holes in them (to let the steam cook through) seem to be gaining ground and popularity - however slowly. This wholly owned family chain has 222 stores concentrated in just 11 states and is adding about 20 new castles a year.

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Still, the limited availability seems to work in favor of the hamburger's popularity, although one might not know it from the bizarre nicknames White Castle devotees give the product.

The baby-sized burger is variously known as a ``belly bomber,'' ``gut buster,'' ``beef cookie,'' ``whitey,'' and even ``slider,'' depending on the region you live in and the kind of crowd you hang around with. But whatever they may be called, management of Columbus-based White Castle System Inc. calls them successful.

``We don't have to put mayonnaise and a lot of gunk on our burgers to make them taste good,'' says Gail Turley, White Castle's advertising manager. And White Castle isn't about to fool around with the formula for success.

``If you look at our product,'' Mr. Turley says, ``it's one of the few things that hasn't changed over the years. The old-timers tell me the burgers are still the same product they were eating after World War II ended.''

Company president E.W. (Bill) Ingram III is the third generation of Ingram to run the family business. Though he is trying some new marketing ploys, like distributing the burgers already frozen to supermarkets (the product works great in microwaves ovens), he isn't going to tamper too much.

``We're not resistant to change,'' says Mr. Ingram. ``But we have to decide on our own if it is change for the better.''

Ingram points out that the White Castle buildings, while still presenting a gleaming white exterior, have evolved over the years. The menu inside the shiny stainless steel outlets also includes a fish sandwich. But the company president says the company sticks with what it knows it can sell profitably: burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes.

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``McDonald's can spend a lot of money on promotions. But we have to sell a product that is going to make a profit,'' Ingram says. ``As you can see by our offices, we're not a lavishly run operation.''

Indeed, Ingram's office is barely big enough for his desk and a personal computer. And the headquarters is on an industrial boulevard along with machine shops, warehouses, and railroad tracks.

White Castle is just a pipsqueak compared with the almost 10,000 McDonald's outlets. But in one respect, White Castle is a giant killer.

Among White Castle's 222 stores, the average sales per store is right around $1.3 million, just edging out McDonald's $1.2 million per store in 1985. Turley modestly points out that 1986 sales were about $1.27 million per store, and this year it may or may not be ahead of McDonald's. ``We trade off being the leader,'' he says.

Because the chain is regional (found in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Missouri, and Kansas), the company has had to resort to unconventional means to get its product to a demanding and devoted public.

Marines in Lebanon in 1982 received an airlift of more than 3,000 pre-cooked burgers. Various groups in cities without ``Castles'' not infrequently order a truckoad of about 500,000 burgers to sell at fund-raising events.

Some particularly avid aficionados have been known to drive hundreds of miles out of their way to satisfy a craving for a belly bomber. One story is told of a pregnant woman purchasing a sack of more than 80 burgers. She was forced to explain that the burgers weren't a craving, but to feed her family when it became time to give birth.

And the stories go on. For example, there was the man who boarded an airline flight with an oversized briefcase. Soon, a stewardess recognized the smell, and before long the man was forced by popular demand to distribute scores of burgers to the other passengers.

Though the product is unique, Ingram says the main element that has made White Castle successful all these years has to do with treating people right.

``We believe in the golden rule, to our employees and the customer,'' he says. ``I'm always amazed the public knows the name and the product, whether they've eaten them or not.''

Last year, the first two licensed White Castles were opened in Japan. But Ingram says the company will continue its steady, slow expansion and will not get caught up in trying to do too much at once. That is one reason why, although White Castle is 33 years older than McDonald's, it has only a fraction of the outlets.

``We've got a conservative policy and as you know our long-term debt is very low,'' Ingram says. The reason the company has so little debt, he says, is because of founder E.W. (Billy) Ingram, whose business, unlike so many others, survived the depression by rigorously following the credo: ``He who owes no money cannot go broke.''

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