Wine and ‘Sliders’ at the Castle
By BARRY NEWMAN
LAFAYETTE, Ind.—The wine list at the White Castle here proposes a thoughtfully balanced varietal selection, from a pétillant Moscato to a quite approachable Merlot.
Jeanette Merritt stopped by one lunchtime for a tasting. Ms. Merritt isn’t new to wine; she’s the Indiana Wine Grape Council’s marketing director. Wine, however, is new to White Castle. Since December, at this one location, the hamburger chain has been pairing some elegant aspirations with its rather unpretentious “sliders.”
At the counter, Ms. Merritt ordered three cheeseburgers and the full complement of wines: four, in seven-ounce bottles. The burgers cost $2.49, the wine $18. A staffer carried the wine to a booth, twisted open the screw-tops and set out clear-plastic glasses. Table service enhances the ambience (and is required by state law).
Ms. Merritt began with the Merlot, from Barefoot Cellars, and deemed it “good.” Of the Chardonnay, she said, “The fruit’s there instead of the butter.” The Moscato was “fun.” Then came the “sweet red,” a blend. “It’s red,” said Ms. Merritt. “It’s sweet.”
The Merlot, she decided, paired best with the burgers. She ate two. Eyeing the leftovers, she said, “At some point that was a cow, I guess.”
White Castle, a fixture in a dozen east-central states, is the Motel 6 of fast food. A family business since 1921, with 421 stores and sales last year of $632 million, it gets credit for initiating the masses to 100% ground beef in a bun.
White Castle hasn’t sold beer—also newly on sale in Lafayette—or wine up to now, but for those who missed the movie “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” it is famous as the place where fervid “cravers”—drunk, stoned or just gluttonous—go to pig out.
“I have never in my mind combined the idea of wine with White Castle,” says Richard Crosby, a music professor at Eastern Kentucky University who says he eats there 300 times a year.
Neither has David Hogan, an Ohio historian whose book on White Castle describes it as a “socioeconomic ‘common ground’ where truck drivers eat alongside physicians who eat next to the homeless.”
“Wine?” Prof. Hogan says. “It seems wholly illogical to me. If Wendy’s did it, it would be less startling.”
Or Burger King, or Starbucks, or Sonic. All three are also in the midst of booze tests at a handful of their stores. Yet if Prof. Hogan cheers White Castle for learning to “celebrate its own anachronism,” fast-food experts toast this experiment’s shrewdness. As restaurant adviser Malcolm Knapp says, “They’re always right in sync with the zeitgeist.”
“Slider,” for example, is a slur dating to the 1940s on the alleged ease with which White Castle burgers slide in. Now hip bistros serve ahi tuna sliders, foie gras sliders. At the Little Owl, in New York’s Greenwich Village, the “gravy meatball slider” ($15 for three) made the cover of Bon Appétit.
The chef and owner of Little Owl, Joey Campanaro, was at his bar one recent day, contemplating a stack of White Castle sliders brought in for a dégustation. “Those onions were cooked forever,” he said, after taking a bite and making a face.
“Disgusted?” said his friend, Josh Ozersky, author of “The Hamburger, a History.” Mr. Ozersky grew up eating White Castle sliders in New Jersey. “It’s still a beautiful thing,” he said, “a talisman, a one-of-a-kind craveable object.” Between pronouncements, he ate three.
Last year, White Castle registered “The Original Slider” as a trademark. From there, it was a hip-hop and a jump to Moscato.
“We’ll muse occasionally on metaphysics, but we’re only selling a 2½-inch-square hamburger,” said Jamie Richardson, head of corporate relations, when asked for the rationale.
Mr. Richardson, married to a great-granddaughter of Billy Ingram, the founder, was in Columbus, Ohio, the company’s hometown, at a board members’ cocktail party—being held in a White Castle.
There’s a new taste sensation at one White Castle in Indiana. The hamburger chain is serving up wine and beer, along with its signature sliders. WSJ’s Barry Newman reports from Lafayette.
“Our customers wanted beer, so we thought, why not try wine, too?” said Lisa Ingram, chief operating officer. She was drinking a Sprite. Her father, Bill Ingram, president and chief executive, held a bottle of Budweiser. “I don’t think we’ll do scotch,” he said.
At another White Castle, in downtown Columbus, opinions varied among the staff on the wisdom of adding spirits to the menu.
“We got all kinds of drunks already,” said Dominic Williams, tending the grill behind bulletproof glass. Aqueelah Smith finished mopping and disagreed. “Wine? At White Castle?” she said. “People would try it, eagerly. It’s ironic.”
For now, the ironies are confined to Lafayette’s one White Castle, off I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis. Arby’s, Chili’s, Denny’s, McDonald’s, IHOP and Burger King are within a five-minute drive. There is a Starbucks across the road and a Dairy Queen next door, now re-christened “DQ Grill & Chill.” It sells burgers.
Still white and crenelated, the White Castle has been dolled up and subbranded as “Blaze.” The menu has extras, mainly meat, pulled and stewed. The wines stand in a glass cooler, except the Merlot, which is served unchilled.
Hours went by this day with no wine orders. “It isn’t Bordeaux, it’s Indiana,” said Dave Dore, the regional manager, who was passing through. A man sat nearby behind a pile of cheeseburgers. Mr. Dore called, “Some wine with your White Castle?” The man said, “Sliders would go better with Wild Turkey and Peppermint Schnapps.”
The Andouille sausage was dropped a short while ago for lack of sales, but White Castle is giving the wine test here at least a year before deciding if it should let any other White Castles dip in. “Who would have known in 1921 that the hamburger would last?” said Mr. Dore.
It was 10 p.m. before Lauren Reed finally walked in and caught sight of the bottles. “I thought it was a rumor,” she said. A chef at Purdue University in West Lafayette, she ordered three regular sliders, two cheese sliders—and a Moscato.
“I find that people who know wine will choose the Moscato,” said the counterman, Ryan Parrott. Retiring to a booth, Ms. Reed said, “I just wanted something kind of sweet to go with my White Castles.”
The place was empty by 11 p.m. In a blink of the flat screens above the counter, the alcohol suddenly was off the menu. White Castle doesn’t want drunken cravers coming in late to get drunker. But, like every White Castle, this one was staying open all night, in case they came in hungry.