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‘Cravers’ storm the (White) Castle for deliciousness

There were 34 food trucks and 12 food vendors at the Las Vegas Foodie Fest at the Silverton this weekend, but much of the action was in one corner near the VIP tent, where the sea of humanity was divided into the haves and the haves: those who have to stay in line to buy the iconic White Castle sliders, and those who have to keep moving, seemingly without rest, to keep those lines going.

You may have heard reports that, at White Castle’s first Las Vegas appearance at the Foodie Fest in April, the waits for the diminutive burgers were as long as four hours. Before this weekend’s event, John Kelley, a White Castle vice president and “chief people officer,” said they’d be better prepared this time. Instead of two grills, they were bringing six, and hoped that would help satisfy the demand.

Which, of course, raises the question of what in the world is up with that? Why has White Castle — which we’ll hereafter refer to simply as WC, as befitting something that has earned rock-star status — reached what can only be called cult proportions? What is, after all, so special about the tiny burgers?

“Other than everything?” said a clearly baffled Migna Gonzalez. But then she stopped to contemplate.

“They’re the perfect size, and the flavors are well-balanced,” Gonzalez said. “Because they’re small, you can eat a whole lot.”

Gonzalez, a native of Chicago, where she grew up with WC, was at the event with her husband, Nathan Sisco, who said he’s had a few WC’s here and there over the years. But newbie daughters Adrianna and Zofia were much of the reason for their wait in line, where Gonzalez said they were planning to buy “only 10 today.”

“We’ve got to continue the tradition,” she said.

Family tradition also brought John Mullin to the Foodie Fest from Pahrump. A native of Michigan, where his family still lives, he’d gotten an email from someone cluing him in: “Dude, you know that they’re going to be in Vegas. You have to go.”

Ara Tcholakian also hails from Michigan. He had brought his family to the event, although he was the lone member holding the WC fort.

“I’m usually drunk when I eat these,” Tcholakian said. “This is the first time I was ever sober. It’s a Midwestern tradition.”

And that, in various translations, was clearly the reason an electronic sign near the entrance to the Silverton flashed, “White Castle here today”; tradition, it seems, is the steam that drives not only the WC grills but also the cult, way more than flavor or texture or anything else.

Nancy Fullerton said they tasted just as good as her memories.

“I’m from Indiana,” she said. “We used to get these all the time. In high school we would take off and drive an hour to a White Castle.”

She brought her daughter and granddaughters to pass on the WC tradition. Asked what she liked about the burgers, she demurred.

“They’re just good,” Fullerton said. “I don’t know.”

That unknown had been enough to prompt her to buy 60 sliders, although hers would be far from the largest purchase of the weekend. By midafternoon Sunday, Kelley said they’d had at least two purchases of 200 cheeseburgers each. At one time. Times two.

He wasn’t at all surprised by the numbers, considering their experience in April.

“One of the things we learned in April is that it actually drove up what people bought because they were waiting in line for so long,” he said. “We heard loud and clear that we needed to do two things”: bring more grills and offer several lines, including for those who wanted 30 or fewer or those who wanted an unlimited number.

As you might imagine, it takes a lot of people to cook and serve all of those sliders to the WC cultists, which the company calls Cravers.

“We have a couple of locals helping us out,” Kelley said.

The bulk of the staff, though, was about 45 people whom the company had flown in, mainly from parts Midwest, including Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; Indianapolis; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; St. Louis; and New Jersey. They all were volunteers, who were paid for their time and got their airfare and hotel rooms paid by the company.

“So we basically have two shifts every day,” Kelley said.

Among the volunteers was Patti Boeshantz of Columbus, who Kelley called “an award-winning general manager.”

“I love doing this,” Boeshantz said. “It’s awesome to see the lines, and everyone so thrilled about our company.”

She was taking a quick break with Lori Compton of Indianapolis, recently promoted to general manager.

“It’s just the energy in the crowd,” Compton said. “There’s nothing like a White Castle.”

And the employees and WC cultists were proving that, while the irresistible aroma of grilling onions wafted through the air. At each of the flat-top grills, employees laid down a closely spaced layer of chopped onions, upon which they shingled the square, thin beef patties, each punched with dime-sized holes to facilitate the steaming process. A proprietary seasoning was sprinkled over the meat and a bun was laid over each patty, the lot steaming together. Around the grills stood pallets of plastic-wrapped buns, sleeves for burgers, boxes, napkins and on and on.

“It’s a very unique burger,” Kelley said. “We’re steam-grilled, with special buns that absorb the steam and the moisture.”

At any rate, they’re a major draw for the Foodie Fest. Ranier Galgana, managing partner and “chief make it happen officer” of the Las Vegas Foodie Fest and its parent company, Red Dragon Productions, said the first two events were WC-less. Then they took to Facebook to ask people what food company they’d like to see at the festival.

“We knew they would be a hit,” he said. “But White Castle was definitely the resounding answer.”

Kelley conceded that part of the attraction for Las Vegans may be that, although the sliders are available frozen in all 50 states, the closest WC restaurant is in Cape Girardeau, Mo., more than 1,500 miles from Las Vegas. But he said the cult status extends beyond the aspect of forbidden (or at least unavailable) fruit.

“I think we’re a fun brand,” Kelley said. “People have a deep emotional connection to us.”

There are a lot of emotional connections within the company as well. Kelley said his great-grandfather, Billy Ingram, and a partner started the company in Wichita, Kan., in 1921. Kelley’s fourth-generation family tier has eight members working for the company, including cousin Lisa Ingram, the president.

But bringing all of that equipment and all of those employees to Las Vegas and paying their expenses means that the event is clearly not a big moneymaker for the company.

“On this particular event, we do a little better than break even,” Kelley said. “We do like the exposure. We know there’s a big group of Cravers out here.”

One of whom would be Indiana native James Derry, who moved to Las Vegas from California six weeks ago, and brought granddaughters Sarah Engbert, 12, and Katy Engbert, 11, to the event. He acknowledged that the fresh sliders were much better than the frozen ones, but said he didn’t think he’d do the two-hour wait again.

As Derry and his wife and granddaughters sat beneath a White Castle canopy, Barbara and Joe Sullivan were walking toward the gate with four Crave Crates — 120 sliders — to go. Asked what they planned to do with them, they looked at each other with an air of incredulity. And then finally, in unison:

“We’re going to eat ’em.”

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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