“As long as we don’t touch or change in any way, shape or form the 2-inch-by-2-inch sider, our core customers will be happy — and they’ve very adamantly told us that,” Ingram says. “‘You can have all these new products. I don’t understand the new products. I don’t want to taste the new products. I just want my slider; don’t mess with the slider.’”
The idea is to honor the company’s core while expanding to new audiences. That core is so established that White Castle doesn’t have to spend much time marketing the slider.
King of the castle
Tapping into your customers’ voice is critical for business longevity. That’s how White Castle put restaurant products in the grocery freezers before others. Ingram’s father saw customers ordering extra sliders to take home and freeze.
Ingram says you have to understand what customers want out of your experience and your brand. To do that, White Castle takes customer service seriously. It has been surveying customers at the store level for years.
“Since we’re open 24 hours, we can track how well each shift is doing and provide feedback to team members on how they can improve,” she says.
Team members also have scorecards that help with accountability.
“We’re a small regional brand and we’re not on every corner,” Ingram says. “Our customers have to drive by five or six other places to get to us. We want to make sure that when they arrive, they have a really, really good experience.”
Another integral piece to the overall customer experience is loyal, long-term employees. Of White Castle’s 10,000 team members, more than 25 percent have been with the company for a decade or more.
“A lot of people know customers by name, and know about their family and know what they order,” she says. “When our customers come in, many of them feel like this is their place — it is their place that they are welcome, that they have friends, that they are cared about.
“Sometimes if our regulars don’t show up for a couple of days, our team members get worried and they may call the family of that particular customer to see if they are OK.”
- Invest internally before looking for external growth.
- Honor your core business when adding innovation.
- Listen to your customers’ voice at all times.
The Ingram File:
Name: Lisa Ingram
Title: President and CEO
Company: White Castle system Inc.
Born: Columbus, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis on marketing and finance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas; MBA in operations and consulting from The Ohio State University.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first summer job when I was 16 — because my father said you have to go get a job, you can go work at White Castle, you can go work someplace else — was being a ride operator in the hot blazing sun at Wyandot Lake, the old amusement park at the Columbus Zoo.
I learned that you can perceive a job to be easy and fun, and you can figure out once you get into it, it’s a lot of hard work. But there are fun aspects about each and every job if you’re willing to open yourself up. Even though I can’t say I loved being a ride operator, I enjoyed the people and the friendships that I made. That’s what made the job fun.
What’s your best advice about working in a family business? I feel really fortunate because all of my family members are hard working, loyal and add value to the brand. I know that’s not always the case in every family business.
My advice would be to focus on the needs of the business — try to make sure that every family member understands the needs of the business and how their unique skills fit in. It may not be what they think. Where do their skills make them the most valuable to the business? Those aren’t always easy conversations, but if you can get to that point, it really benefits the individual because they’ll be productive, happy and contributing, and it also benefits the business.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? I’m a runner, so I run. I like outdoor activities — running, hiking. I have four kids, so honestly that pretty much takes up any free time that I have. My family is a big part of my life. They are my hobby right now.