White Castle goes big with the Impossible Slider

The cult favourite burger chain finds surprising success and overlap with Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods


Impossible Foods Inc, the Silicon Valley-based alternative meat company known for its plant-sourced burger that tastes, smells and even “bleeds” like the real thing, is making a big move with a tiny patty. The Impossible Slider made its nationwide debut at all 377 White Castle locations in the US on Sept 12. The compact delicacy, topped with smoked cheddar, pickles and onions ensconced in the fast- food chain’s famously soft bun, costs US$1.99 (RM8.16).

At first glance, it’s an odd pairing. Impossible Foods’ stated goal is to eliminate meat consumption by 2035. White Castle’s main product is meat.

John Cho with Penn (right). Penn, one of the cult classic film’s stars, will make his 1st promotional appearance for the chain to publicise the partnership (Photographer: Barry King/WireImage)

But younger customers are seeking healthier options, even at fast-food restaurants, according to Jamie Richardson, VP at White Castle. “We’re not a hamburger company, we’re a slider company,” he says. “If we don’t tune in to what customers want and map out accordingly, we won’t be relevant.”

President Lisa Ingram, whose family co-founded White Castle almost 100 years ago, sees Impossible Slider as the perfect product for loyal customers who’ve gone vegetarian. Before, “they would order cheese sliders, our version of a meatless slider”, she says.

The Impossible Slider first premiered at 140 locations in New York, New Jersey and Chicago in April. The new burger was an immediate hit, with sales more than 30% above forecast, according to White Castle. “Our market share is about 250% higher at places selling Impossible Sliders than the ones that aren’t selling them currently,” Ingram says. Based on the strong initial customer reaction, the company decided to roll it out across the country.

It’s now even considering an Impossible breakfast slider. “The sky’s the limit,” Ingram says.

“From a disruptive point of view, burgers are the right product to take on the meat industry,” says Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown. Data show ground beef accounts for about 60% of beef consumption in the US.
White Castle is Impossible Foods’ biggest customer, but Brown views the partnership as just the first step in the company’s mass market evolution. “When we have production capacity, we have every intention of having our product sold at any fast-food chain that sells burgers,” he says.

Impossible Foods’ products are currently sold in 3,000 restaurants in a variety of guises, from chef-driven burgers in New York to faux döner kebabs in San Mateo, California, to Impossible bao in Hong Kong. “Some chains sell a volume of burgers that’s 100 times what we can produce right now,” Brown says. “But they will be some of our best customers.”

The company is not yet profitable, but Brown expects that to change in the next decade. Impossible Foods has received about US$450 million in funding so far, from sources including Khosla Ventures, Google Ventures, Sailing Capital and Bill Gates. Much of it has been spent on research, according to Brown. “Right now our growth margin is positive,” he says. “Every time we sell a pound of burger meat, we make money.”

White Castle and Impossible Foods are marketing the burger to an unusual cross section of consumers: Those who appreciate the cultural cachet of both the classic slider and a quintessentially Silicon Valley company. The campaign kicked off with a free concert in Detroit on Sept 12 evening featuring GZA and Ghost-face Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as local rappers Royce da 5’9” and Dej Loaf. (The Detroit metro area is one of the top 10 regions for Impossible Burger sales, according to Brown.)

Of course, no White Castle marketing push would be complete without a Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle tie-in. Kal Penn, one of the cult classic film’s stars, will make his first promotional appearance for the chain to publicise the partnership. — Bloomberg