Why is White Castle so cheap?

Fast food burgers just aren't as cheap as they used to be. The New York Post estimates that over the last decade or so, fast food burger prices have climbed as much as 54 percent. This is largely due to the emergence of fast casual restaurants and pricier burger chains like Shake Shack and Five Guys. If you've only got a few bucks to spare though, White Castle can cover your burger cravings — along with fries and a drink to boot.

White Castle's sliders might not be as cheap as they were when the brand first came on the slider scene (five sliders for a dime!) but they're still a bargain (via Chicago Tribune). According to Fast Food Menu Prices, a White Castle customer can get a classic slider for just 72 cents and a cheese slider for 90 cents. Today's slider is almost double the price it was in 1990, whereas a McDonald's hamburger in 1990 was still pricer than a White Castle slider in 2020 (via Insider)!

White Castle likes to keep everything small

An obvious reason why White Castle's food is so cheap is the size. You won't find any half-pound burgers at White Castle, and they never jumped on the fast food super-size bandwagon. Even today their fry sizes are kids, small, and medium. Yes, there is a "sack size," but that's technically meant to serve three people.

The big secret to keeping prices low for White Castle is the company's overall belief system to keep things small. Small stores, small menu, and a near non-existent advertising presence. White Castle's then-director of marketing, Christopher Thomas, said in 1991 said that the brand was committed to primarily doing one thing only — selling burgers. "We're a hamburger chain," Thomas said. "We've never digressed from that. That's where some of the others got lost, in chicken, pizza, pasta. They want every dollar out there."

CEO Lisa Ingram reiterated that belief to CNBC in 2019 saying that the "model has worked well for us for almost 100 years and that we believe it's a good model for us to continue into the future."

Also, White Castle also doesn't franchise its restaurants. Even when franchise investors cover a significant portion of the cost, franchising is incredibly expensive for restaurants. White Castle avoids this expense by keeping all of its company-owned stores near its distribution facilities (via Yahoo Small Business). Once again, it's this "keep things small" strategy that helps in keeping prices cheap.

They keep their food processing in-house

In addition to keeping everything small and manageable, White Castle also likes to make sure that its suppliers are within arm's reach of a restaurant. And exactly who are White Castle's suppliers? That would be White Castle of course! The burger chain doesn't turn to outside suppliers for their food product, but has both its own bakery and meat-processing plant. 

The Evendale, Ohio bakery produces over 500,000 slider buns a week and has done so for over 50 years (via White Castle). Since 2001, the burger chain has also produced millions of slider patties each year in its Zanesville, Ohio meat processing plant (via YouTube). While White Castle may not have its own beef farms, they're still saving money by not having to rely on an outside meat processing plant to produce those uniquely-squared slider patties. 

White Castle makes their own restaurant equipment

The closer one looks at the White Castle operation, the more it becomes abundantly clear — these guys are kind of control freaks. That's a positive thing, though, because it means not just lower prices for their customers but consistency in the product. White Castle is strict about keeping everything in-house and it doesn't even rely on outside contractors to make its kitchen equipment. 

Rather than pay an outside metal manufacturer to make the specialized kitchen equipment for its restaurants, White Castle has its own 250,000-square-foot metal fabrication plant in Ohio (via The Fabricator). The White Castle subsidiary known as PSB Co. makes everything from the kitchen tools and cooking fixtures to the restaurant's seating. 

While it probably would have been easier to simply hire a third party to handle that sort of thing, White Castle founder Billy Ingram was reportedly pretty demanding that things be done in a precise way, and in 1934 he commissioned the building of the metal fabrication plant. PSB Co. doesn't simply make White Castle products, but also has contracts with other businesses in everything from the automotive to the landscaping industry. 

Long story short — White Castle can keep its slider prices low because they've built a business that they're nearly 100 percent in control of.