White Castle headed for Valley: Nostalgic transplants drive company’s bid for big little-burger bucks


By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy land of Westeros, many are aware winter is coming.

While winter remains fiction in the real-life Valley of the Sun, the arrival of a long-awaited White Castle restaurant will soon become reality.

Company officials and local dignitaries gathered near Scottsdale last month to commemorate the groundbreaking of the iconic slider-burger chain’s first Arizona location — and only its third location in the Western U.S., with two already built in Las Vegas.

When it opens this fall with 50-75 employees at 9310 E. Via de Ventura in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Talking Stick Entertainment District near Scottsdale, the new White Castle restaurant may attract new customers to the brand.

But executives know nostalgic former patrons who have long-since migrated to Arizona from the Midwest and elsewhere will be the company’s likely bread and butter as they seek a toehold in the Valley’s competitive fast food market.

“Most of all I want to thank the dedicated and devoted friends and fans of White Castle, who have been patient, very persistent, and insistent in some cases that they need and deserve a Castle in Arizona,” said White Castle CEO Lisa Ingram during the April 11 groundbreaking.

Jamie Richardson, White Castle’s vice president for government and shareholder relations, said homesick local fans have engaged in social media campaigns for years, sounding a constant drumbeat to bring the chain here.

“For decades we’ve known we had a strong and loyal following in Arizona. When we really started a process thinking about expansion areas of the country, there was literally a Facebook page called ‘Bring White Castle to Arizona,’” Mr. Richardson said. “I think there’s been a long courtship happening with the Valley of the Sun and we’re thankful we’ve finally got a date on the books.”

Growth market

Arizona remains a popular destination for new residents as well as back-east-based businesses seeking their patronage, with brands like Krispy Kreme and In-n-Out Burger arriving over the past decades and powerhouse Chicago-based pizzerias like Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s arriving more recently.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in April 2019 that Maricopa County topped its list of fastest growing counties, with an influx of 81,244 new residents over 2017 and 2018.

The total for Arizona nearly doubled that of the runner up, Clark County, Nevada, which saw 48,337 new residents over the same period, while counties in Texas, California, Washington and Florida rounded out the top ten.

A December 2018 publication at Realtor.com analyzed trends around the country, noting only 11% of Americans had moved into a new home over the previous year — the lowest migration rate recorded in 70 years of data gathering.

However, the site still ranked Arizona atop its list of most-desirable destinations with 37,188 new residents arriving during the study period.

And California was listed as the single-largest place of origin for those new arrivals.

The remainder of Realtor.com’s top five destinations included Riverside, California; Austin, Texas; Houston; and Orlando, Florida.

And in November 2018, the University of Arizona published results of a study conducted by George W. Hammond, Ph.D., director and research professor at the UA Economic and Business Research Center.

His study revealed that from 2012 to 2016, the top three origins for incoming residents to the state — as well as the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas — were California, Texas and Washington.

Expansion plans

For White Castle’s analysts, the numbers in Arizona just added up, Mr. Richardson said.

The company — which started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921 before moving its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, in 1934 — now has restaurants in 13 states in addition to the site planned for Arizona, with most located primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.

“We’re still family owned after 98 years,” Mr. Richardson said. “For generations, we really didn’t go into new markets. We just added more Castles to the cities where we already had a presence.”

In the late 80s, when the company launched its retail division and started selling their little, boxed burgers in freezer cases at grocery stores around the country, the move was praised by long-suffering transplants pining for the sizzling, squared morsels.

“I think if anything it probably slowed down our restaurant expansion because that part of the business did very well and enabled us to be in all 50 states a lot quicker,” Mr. Richardson said.

Now that they’ve decided to pursue potential expansion of brick-and-mortar locations, their process to choose new sites encompasses more than just raw data, he explained.

“I think it’s both art and science for us,” Mr. Richardson said. “There’s certainly a demographic evaluation to understand density of population and all the math and figures forecasting what a restaurant might be able to do sales-wise once it opens. But I think just as important for us is: do people who live there like our food? When there’s a fit, it gets our attention.”

The company may consider further expansion, but today this is their only announced opening. Company leaders will continue to follow the money and their intuitions as they plan for the future, he said.

“At this point our focus in on Arizona and our focus is on this restaurant,” Mr. Richardson said. “One of the great things about being family owned is we can make long-haul decisions and not feel the pressures of Wall Street analysts to move at a pace that doesn’t feel right to us. We’re real, real excited about this site and think it’s the perfect place to introduce or reintroduce and reconnect with our fans in the Greater Phoenix area.”

While company officials are planning for a strong showing when the restaurant opens, they make no assumptions and will take time to gauge the response before adding more locations in Arizona or elsewhere, he said.

“Decades ago, the model was: let’s see how many we can open and how quickly so we can have a broader base of sales to distribute the cost of TV advertising,” Mr. Richardson said.

“Our thought is less about being in a hurry to add more spots and making sure we do this one right and that way we have heart we have for hospitality in other cities extended to our friends in Phoenix.”