Lisa Ingram (aka ‘The Slider Queen’) has a lot on her plate. In addition to her role as CEO of White Castle overseeing 377 locations, she is now also Chair of the Board. The great granddaughter of founder Bill Ingram has spent the majority of her life building the brand, whether on the marketing team, in store or leading operations. Throughout her journey, her goal has been to build an incredible customer experience that honors traditions, and innovating the menu with new hits like the Impossible™ Slider.
Read our interview with this incredible woman who is heralding a new era of innovation, diversity and sustainability in this iconic QSR chain.
IF: Your great grandfather founded White Castle. Was becoming CEO always part of the plan?
Lisa Ingram: I grew up in the business and even worked in the marketing department in high school. However, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow that path and wanted to explore new things, so I moved to Dallas to study Marketing & Finance at Southern Methodist University. When I graduated, I looked for work in the tech industry because it was important to me to forge my own path and get a job where no one knew my name.
After working for a few different companies, I moved back to Ohio to work on White Castle’s marketing team, then subsequently pursued my MBA so I could switch to operations. From there I took on different roles with varying responsibility until I became CEO in 2016 and most recently, Chair of the Board. My journey isn’t the conventional route for entering the family business, which was important because I needed to be sure I wanted to do this by choice, not by legacy.
You transitioned from marketing to operations, which is considered more of a male-dominated field. Was that challenging for you?
Actually it wasn’t. Operations is my sweet spot because I’m analytical & process oriented. I love problem-solving to make things run better, whether that’s running a castle or manufacturing our own products and figuring out how to optimize their journey to 360 restaurants.
Operations is the heart & soul of our brand, and it’s really important to me as well as many other women in the company. We have a lot of diversity in our team -- 72% of our general managers and senior staff are women, and I’m so proud of that.
What is more important to you: operations or innovation?
My great grandfather was very focused on operations, so much so that we operated with the same five products for 40 years. When we finally did introduce a new product, it was a slice of cheese! It also took us 35 years to adapt to the drive-through ‘fad’, so we were not a very forward focused company. As a result of this, I’m very focused on the big picture: how do consumers behave?
I really value insights and listening to the customer, and that has taught me that consumer preferences are changing. There is a core group of customers who don’t want us to change the Slider, which we will never do. But there are a lot of people who want more options, like a Chicken Slider, or a Breakfast Slider. We also have customers who grew up on White Castle & are now vegetarian, so they would order a ‘Cheese Slider’ (cheese & onions on a bun) -- that was our vegetarian option! We had a lot of customers doing that, so we knew we needed a better option.
We introduced a few sliders before we met Impossible Foods, but your product is phenomenal, so we were really excited to launch the Impossible Slider. It was a great success because we had so many customers who were really excited about that product.
Image Source: One Green Queen(opens in a new tab)
This year is White Castle’s 100th anniversary so my focus is on where consumer preferences are heading & how our brand can continue to embrace the things that have made us successful. That means we need to adapt & evolve to keep our products relevant, fun & inviting for future consumers, while providing the best experience possible.
What’s your strategy for capturing consumer insights?
The first thing we do is listen to our customers & team members, who are the voices of their community. We also collect data via surveys, email blasts and sales in our restaurants and retail locations.
We recently launched Craver Nation, a loyalty program that allows customers to engage with us to get discounts & deals. This was a strategic investment for us because we’re a cash heavy business, and it allowed us to learn more about our customers so we can better serve their needs with relevant offers.
How do you balance brand needs with industry trends?
For us, it all comes down to consumer preferences - what do the consumers want? Some customers want the original slider, others want variety on the menu and love the Impossible™ Burger. Other customers want to know what we stand for, so our diversity and sustainability initiatives really resonate.
Since the 1960s, we’ve been reusing bun boxes, our sacks are made with 100% recycled materials, 92% of our locations have a recycling program and our new home office is Gold LEED certified. There are a lot of things we do as a brand around diversity, sustainability & longevity that resonate, and we will continue to give our customers what they want.
What are you most proud of?
Our team. We have a very diverse group of 10,000 team members and many have stayed with us for more than 25 years. We celebrate those achievements and strive to provide an environment where they feel like a valued part of the family. Many of our staff started with us when they were 16 and have accomplished great things, like sending their children to college and running multi-million dollar locations. I’m so honored that they feel valued and we’ll continue to work to build a culture that makes our team want to stay with us and grow the brand.
I’m really proud of our diversity. It’s a big trend right now, but we’ve been working on this for the last 20 years. We still have areas to focus on, but I love that when we gather our general managers together, it looks like the United Nations. That is just super cool.
What leadership values would you recommend for others to emulate?
As a woman, focusing on diversity is really important to me personally, but is also very important to our organization. I am one of a small number of female CEOs in the food industry even though there’s tremendous diversity at the grassroots level. It’s sad that we're still at that point, so I try to be a leader & have our organization lead in that space.
My advice to many women in particular is to pick the right life partner who will support you, because it’s hard to be successful at work and the other areas of your life if you don’t have help. We want to be great bosses, but we also want to be great wives and mothers, so having a partner who gets up in the middle of the night to feed the kids when we’re tired & need to sleep is crucial. If you can hire help, great! But that’s not the situation for most women, so finding a partner that’s supportive of helping with the kids and housework is crucial. When those needs are taken care of, you have more energy, which will make you more productive at work and happier overall.
Lastly, find time for yourself. Practice gratitude & laughter daily and do things that fill your passion. The restaurant industry is a 24/7 business, but at White Castle, we prioritize work life balance. One of our goals is to be a Best Place to Work, so we make sure our team members have time off so they can enjoy their experience at work more.
What advice do you have for small business owners?
Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hire people who are passionate about the brand and surround yourself with motivated, successful people. Then, let go of control. They might do things different than you would, but you need to be okay with that and let them feel like they’re making an impact in the business.
That’s really hard for first time entrepreneurs because the business is their baby. They spend so much energy developing the recipes and concept, so to put it in someone else's hands is scary. But if you want to have balance in your life, you need to be able to hand over control to people you trust. I’ve had to learn that lesson as well, but making room for others has allowed me to develop a great team.
If I want them to be successful, I have to get out of the way & let them put their mark on the brand. Really successful people want to run things, and it’s important to let them find their successes and learn from their mistakes.