White Castle 'slides' into fast food history with 'Impossible' feat today

| by S.A. Whitehead
White Castle 'slides' into fast food history with 'Impossible' feat today

One of the oldest traditional "fast food" burger brands, White Castle, today leapt headlong into what may well be the fast food future by officially becoming the first national truly quick-service brand to offer the non-meat Impossible Burger (in this case the Impossible Slider, of course) at all its system stores nationwide. 

As of 9 a.m. Eastern time, White Castle's 377 locations in 13 states are now offering the Impossible Slider for $1.99, bringing the lab-borne meatless beef-replicating burger to the masses like never before and at a price point lower then ever before. Results of the brand's five-month test at 140 of its New York, New Jersey and Chicago locations were so positive that the 97-year-old Columbus-based chain decided to go system-wide. 

"White Castle is teaching us how to popularize plant-based meat and become a mainstream, mass market menu item."         -Impossible Burger founder Patrick Brown

The plant-based concoction first hit the upscale dining tables of restaurants, like New York's Momofuku Nishi in 2016. Soon after that, its creator, Stanford University professor and geneticist Patrick O. Brown, told the world about the plant-derived molecule called "heme" at the root of the a meaty-tasting substance that is the Impossible Burger. 

Brown worked to create this beefy look- and taste-alike to help the world eat more sustainably and use far fewer resource-heavy meat sources, like beef cattle, in the interest of the planet's overall health. Upscale restaurant chefs embraced the product for everything from America's much-beloved hamburger meat, to things like pizza toppings and other typically meaty ingredients.

Soon the Impossible burger was hitting the menus of many fast casual and finer dining brands, like Bareburger, KronnerBurger, Public House and Vina Enoteca as a new East Oakland, California production site came online. 

Making the 'Impossible,' possible

But the product's full-scale menu presence at White Castle is the first true low-cost fast food chain manifestation of the Impossible Burger. Though White Castle has previously had a vegetarian burger among its offerings, the addition of the Impossible Slider takes that to a new level of consumer availability, which has actually ended up teaching its creators a thing or two, as well.

"White Castle is teaching us how to popularize plant-based meat and become a mainstream, mass market menu item and cultural icon," Impossible Foods' founder and CEO Patrick O. Brown said. "This partnership is a big win for consumers."

But this website's restaurateur readers can readily imagine that incorporating a whole new form of "meat" into a burger-centric chain's operations takes some doing. It is not merely process of shipping the product to stores and slapping it on the grill like other sliders. That's why White Castle Vice President President Jamie Richardson said accommodations and adjustments were an important part of the onboarding process for the new product that actually ended up taking the brand back to its very early 20th century roots.  One of the first hurdles, Richardson said, was understanding the differences between "working with the product in the test kitchen and the real world kitchen."

"The cooking process actually takes us back to our beginnings in 1921, when we would mash a meatball on to grilled onions as part of the cooking process," Richardson said in an interview.  "We're doing something very similar with the Impossible Slider. 

"It provides a great seared flavor profile and the combination of the Impossible and onion, served piping hot with one perfect pickle on a signature White Castle bun, is pretty unstoppable."

"The cooking process actually takes us back to our beginnings in 1921, when we would mash a meatball on to grilled onions as part of the cooking process."    

-White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson

The product's maker — undoubtedly realizing the potential of the White Castle collaboration —  provided the brand with some "innovations" in the way White Castle outlets receive the product to efficiently manage portion sizes for the Impossible Slider, Richardson said.

"Every time we try something new, we gain insight and learning and this process has been a good and nourishing one," Richardson said.

Feelin' some heavy-duty customer 'love' ... not just from vegans either

But at QSRweb, we wanted to know what kind of response a brand has to receive on a pilot — like White Castle's three-state Impossible Slider trial — to give the item the royal ushering in the the "Castle" menu. 

"The response to the new slider has been overwhelmingly positive from customers and from team members," he relayed to QSRweb. "What we know is that fans of White Castle who have traditionally not been to see us as often, have really increased their number of visits significantly.  ...

"We expected to see a curiosity factor drive some purchases — the good news for us is that customers who have tasted the sandwich seem to love it, because they keep buying more."

And as you might well imagine, the growing number of vegetarians and vegans, have been ecstatic about the offering since aside from a number of largely West Coast plant-based fast food brands, they've had to piece together fast food meals largely from the few vegetable-based side items at some brands.  The warm reception from consumers has been the kind of "buzz" brands can't buy. 

"At the launch, the phones were ringing off the hooks and social media has been abuzz as well," Richardson said.  "As America's first fast food hamburger chain, we're excited to offer what's next.  

"Back in the day, we were thought of as a hamburger brand. We love that. Our hope for the future is that we are known as a slider brand — the place you can go for great taste no matter what you're craving."

So with that kind of reception the question is, are there other "Impossible" offerings in the offing or perhaps other types of meat and seafood replacements? Well, if you expected a complete answer here on the the virtual pages of a publication regularly ead by the world's restaurant executives, you're going to be disappointed. 

"We always want to keep an open mind," Richardson said. "After all — we might not have thought three years ago we'd be doing a system-wide launch of a plant-based protein slider that looks, smells and tastes like 100 percent beef. Our goal will be to continue what we've been doing since 1921: Asking our customers good questions, listening to what they tell us, then acting to bring it all to life."

Photo: White Castle

Topics: Burger/Steak/BBQ, Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Going Green, Health & Nutrition, Hot Products, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Sandwich, Sustainability

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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