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« "44 Sonnets" | Main | Stealthy News Distorting »

October 24, 2005

Dreaming of a White Restaurant

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently drove past a McDonald's restaurant and noticed that the dominant outside paint was no longer white. Could this be a corporate image shift or just a franchisee doin' his own thing?

McDonald's restaurants weren't always white; maybe eight or ten years ago (I forget) the dominant color was a sort of cream-tan. And ditto Burger King: their exteriors turned white in the same time frame as the McDonald's changeover or perhaps a little later.

And the main hamburger chains aren't the only ones whose stores sport white exteriors. Here is a gallery in which all buildings aside from the McDonald's and the Jack in The Box are in Morton, Illinois:

Burger King.jpg
Burger King
Jack in The Box.jpg
Jack in The Box
Dairy Queen.jpg
Dairy Queen
Taco Bell.jpg
Taco Bell -- Hmm, off-white
Wendy's -- Oops, it's brick!

Well, Wendy's was always a little different -- square hamburger patties and all that. And Taco Bell wasn't quite white, but my dimming memory hints that their stores used to be white.

But there's more! Here are pictures of stores for a couple hamburger chains that pre-dated McDonald's:

White Castle.jpg
White Castle
White Tower-Milwaukee.jpg
White Tower

The White Tower outfit seems to be defunct, but the last I heard, White Castle was still in the fray. (White Castle seems to be a New York area company. At least, that's where I remember seeing them last. We don't have any here in the Pacific Northwest, and I don't recall seeing any in California either.)

So what's the deal with white exteriors? White Tower and White Castle were compelled by their names to be white. As for McDonald's, I suspect that a marketing study (or more likely, a whole wad of them) presented a case that actual and potential customers preferred white to alternatives. Doubtless there were assertions about psychological undertones or associations ("white is antiseptic"). I have no idea whether the practical matter of keeping white paint clean ever came up.

Those chains not already featuring white probably aped McDonald's outright or else used that makeover as a trigger for their own marketing research. The result of such groupthink is displayed above.

For whatever it's worth, I never liked the white paint jobs. The McDonald's version struck me as being a cold shade of white -- slightly harsh and off-putting. I found their previous color scheme warmer and more welcoming.

Actually, I like Wendy's brick motif best of all. Come to think of it, I like their burgers best too.



posted by Donald at October 24, 2005


Historically, it was important for burger restaraunts to be white. Back in the thirties when White Castle got started, hamburger had a very poor reputation for quality (and for very good reason).

White Castle's whole image was intended to counteract this. The burgers are cooked right in front of you so you can see nothing foul is added, it is a "castle" implying permanence and integrity, it is tiled to suggest antisepticness, and it is white to look as clean as possible.

There are a number of White Castle appreciation websites that are worth visiting.

Posted by: Terry on October 24, 2005 9:36 PM

There is also a book about the history of the White Castle chain, which was begun in Wichita, Kansas in 1921: "Selling 'Em by the Sack," by David Hogan.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 24, 2005 10:19 PM

I believe White Castle exists in A) New York City and B) the upper midwest.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on October 24, 2005 10:54 PM

I'm not sure about New York, but White Castles are prominent in Ohio and Indiana. The company started in Wichita in 1921, but the HQ soon moved to Columbus, OH, where it remains. there are a total of 390 White Castles, all of which are beloved by underage drinkers who buy huge sacks of sliders after midnight.

Posted by: John Cunningham on October 24, 2005 11:25 PM

Unless "Harold and Kumar Go To The White Castle" is lying, White Castles are still to be found in the wilds of New Jersey.

Didn't McDonald's own surveys indicate a few years ago that the public no longer viewed their restaurants as particularly tidy and, well, antispectic, but rather increasingly cruddy? One can only assume that the white paint was part of their attempt to change that image.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 24, 2005 11:56 PM

The McDonald's restaurants in Sydney all now seem to be in the midst of renovation to a chocolate/mushroom/grey palette - which might be very contemporary, but will no doubt last slightly less time than the white phase. McDonald's in Australia has gone whole hog on the salad and rolls thing so as to avoid being seen as a fast food chain at all.

Posted by: Toby on October 25, 2005 12:33 AM

Sanitation and hygiene were big themes of modernism and of urban renewal. The city was thought to be a rat's nest, and only a "scientific" reworking of traditional arrangements could save us from pestilence. Really! One consequence was a rash of white-brick apartment buildings in New York City, all of which are really ugly. (I live in one.) Another is the curse of whiteness and blankness in modernism generally. Whiteness=hygiene=progress=science=good for you=... Richard Maier and so many others. I wonder if the whiteness of the fast-food world grew from that general hunch/feeling/conviction...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 25, 2005 2:15 AM

I pictured in my mind the fast food outlets near where I live, and with a couple of exceptions I'm not sure what their exterior colors even are! Their colorful and bold signage, awnings and roofs make the exterior wall colors almost irrelevant.

Posted by: Peter on October 25, 2005 9:33 AM

I seem to remember reading, somewhere, that the local concentrations of White Castles, and the fact that they haven't spread out to all corners of the country like a McDonalds, is because the owners refuse to franchise, maintaining direct ownership of each restaurant.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on October 25, 2005 10:24 AM

White Castles most certainly continue to exist in the midwest, including Missouri, and the aforementioned Indiana, Illinois, Ohio. Actually, I find them a bit difficult to digest, but college students (for generations) have found scarfing loads of them (each hamburger is very small) while drunk or stoned to be an honored tradition. My guess is that their advertising plan does not include the while-drunk-or-stoned part of the message, but all college students get the subliminal message! The style of the restaurants has never changed, in my memory.

Posted by: annette on October 25, 2005 11:57 AM

PS--under an entirely different posting about great movie titles---"Harold and Kumar Go to the White Castle" is a great movie title.

Posted by: annette on October 25, 2005 12:04 PM

We've got White Castles here in Jersey City. They define the word 'slider' in the good and bad sense.

When I was in college in St. Louis we lived on them. When we had a few extra pennies we went to Steak 'n Shake. WC (har) used to put out a house organ in which fry-people from Kansas told how their lives were enriched by working there. Puzzles, games, company history, executive hagiographies. We used them to put on a show.

Posted by: Sluggo on October 25, 2005 12:15 PM

I have so many great memories of those little hamburgers at White Castle. I thought they went out of business. I'm glad they still exist.

Posted by: Neil on October 25, 2005 12:29 PM

I worked in a McDonald's during high school, i.e. about 1970-71, and if I recall correctly the original stores had a mostly-white scheme with red and yellow ("golden" arches) detailing. This
began to change in the mid-to-late 60s.

We never had White Castles here, but the Krystal chain was and is pretty similar as far as I know. And the parctice of 3am-scarfing by the drunk and/or stoned continues . . . ah, tradition.


Posted by: Narr on October 25, 2005 12:40 PM

White Castle sells microwave versions of their hamburgers now. They're in your grocer's freezer!

You might think microwaved hamburgers would be hellish, and you'd be right. But White Castle burgers are steamed, you see, so the microwave version is actually a lot like the restaurant originals.

And yes, the box I bought resulted in major dorm flashbacks.

Posted by: Brian on October 25, 2005 1:31 PM

Here is a review of the microwave White Castle burgers. Money quote: "I think eating them sober is not recommended - I'm surprised it didn't say that on the package."

Posted by: Brian on October 25, 2005 1:40 PM

Sacks of sliders were rites of (drinking) passages in central NJ. White Castle's still around in the area offering medicinal meat for the first-time drinkers. Veterans of excessive tippling can still be found queuing up for the petite patties.
I've never eaten there when not touched by a glass or two of beer; I don't think I ever would eat there without having my taste buds somehow numbed. The white color was misleading; the interior (at least of the ones in central Jersey) was fairly dirty and, for some reason even on bright sunny days, the floor was perpetually wet with brownish water.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 25, 2005 3:53 PM

Darko, I have an acquaintance, native of Montreal, who'd drop everything and run to central Jersey after your description. She was going into extatic fit over smoking manhole covers and shreds of newspaper blowing into our faces in Manhattan 2 Novembers ago, when we [finally!] exited The Donkey Show at 2 am...

Posted by: Tatyana on October 25, 2005 4:21 PM

Newspapers were flying, not the covers. We were not THAT drunk.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 25, 2005 4:23 PM

Never been to a White Castle, but I've got to admit, 40 years old and watching "Harold & Kumar Got To White Castle" ... almost had me tempted (they exist in Detroit, I'm told).

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on October 25, 2005 4:50 PM

White Castle Commenters -- I tossed White Tower and White Castle in the posting as an afterthought, something to help bring the article to a conclusion -- and look what I got! Ya never know what will elicit comments.

Anyhow, many thanks for educating me about White Castle and its iconic status for college students. I had their burgers once or twice (didn't the little patties have holes in them -- or am I confusing WC's with another outfit's?) but that was back in the late 60s when I was past undergrad status. Timing must be everything.

Terry -- Interesting historical point. That ick rep seems to have gone by the time I was a kid in the late 40s.

Friedrich -- I'm not up to speed on McDonald's internal quality surveys, but it seems to me that a new mop, a new mop bucket and a new mop squeezer together would cost a lot less than a new paint job. But what do I know.

Toby -- Hmm. Maybe McD is using Oz as a test before rolling out in the USA.

Michael -- And it's true that most kitchen appliances (and often counters, sinks, etc.) were generally white clear through the 30s into the 60s. The last dark-colored item before white rolled in was the wood or coal range (which we had in my house when I was little).

Peter -- Perhaps, but the white on McD's stands out and annoys me all the same.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 25, 2005 7:56 PM

Donald -
Indeed, White Castle burger patties are perforated, which helps in the cooking process. They are steamed as much as fried, with a large amount of what basically amounts to onion soup poured onto the griddle before the patties are added.
I will add that the best steamed burgers anywhere are the steamed cheeseburgers served at a small (and declining) number of non-chain luncheonettes in central Connecticut. A baseball-sized amount of raw ground beef and a chuck of cheddar cheese are put into a rectangular drawer in a purpose-built steam cabinet. A few minutes later, a gray-colored burger emerges, with a shape somewhere between a sphere and a cube. What makes these "steamers" so special is the way in which the cheese and the meat essentially fuse into one. It's quite unlike the usual cheeseburger, in which the melted cheese sits atop - and separate from - the meat. Why steamers never became popular beyond a very limited geographical area is a mystery. It may be because the gray color is somewhat off-putting, or because of the special apparatus requires (which unlike a griddle, cannot be used for anything else). Whatever the case, I can still recall the wonderful taste of a steamer, even though it's been at least 15 years since I last had one.

Posted by: Peter on October 25, 2005 11:51 PM

I just moved to the Chicago suburbs and can report that White Castles still exist hereabouts. Wasn't the folklore that their burgers (called "sliders") were a hangover cure or preventative, thus the popularity alluded to above for young drinkers? I also recall reading that White Castle paid its employees better than other burger chains and had relatively more generous benefits, and so had a much higher retention rate of its staff.

The only thing is...that white tile look may have once seemed antiseptic and scientific or whatever, but now it looks more like Public Restroom, or like something designed to be cleaned by hosing it down. The other burger chains are classing up the look, but White Castles still have that gritty urban Hopper painting ambiance.

A friend of mine had a cat that studiously ignored me every time I went to visit for the 16 years or so of its lifetime -- except once, when I brought a lunch from White Castle for myself. The cat was instantly in my lap, I gave it some pieces of hamburger, and it curled contentedly in my lap for the next half hour or so. And never paid me the slightest bit of attention on any other visit for the rest of its life.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 26, 2005 11:18 AM

Hmmm... how strange. Here in the UK MacDonald's 'restaurants' are... brick-coloured, because they are buildings, and buildings are generally made of bricks. Quite often, like the one in Hampstead, a fashionable part of London, they are in old buildings the appearance of which is protected by law, and, in the case of Hampstead, the number of lawyers and MPs who live there.

Posted by: Graham Asher on October 31, 2005 12:18 PM

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