AWS for Industries

Executive Conversations: Building Resiliency with Lisa Ingram, President and CEO, White Castle

Lisa Ingram, Chief Executive Officer of White Castle, joins Steven Elinson, Head of Worldwide Restaurants, Catering and Food Service Distribution at AWS, for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and her company’s response to that disruption. White Castle, America’s first fast-food hamburger chain, has been making hot and tasty sliders as a family-owned business for almost 100 years. Today White Castle owns and operates more than 360 restaurants dedicated to satisfying customers’ cravings morning, noon and night and sells its famous fare in retail stores nationwide.

This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”. Filled with strategic observations, hints and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.

Steven Elinson: While your business is recognized publicly by many, what’s one unique characteristic or feature that is either lesser known or understood about your company?

Lisa Ingram: At White Castle, we believe we have the most loyal and dedicated team of anyone in the restaurant industry. Our team member engagement scores are +40% higher than the industry norm, and more than one in four of our 10,000 team members have been with us 10 years or more. Our restaurant general managers are key to our success, and their average tenure is 21 years. So on one hand, lots of people know we inspire legendary loyalty with our craving customers. But not everyone is aware of how that loyalty is nurtured and inspired by the team members in our restaurant division.

SE: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?

LI: The biggest challenge has been the accelerated uncertainty and pace of change the pandemic has created. In the first 30 to 60 days of self-isolation, it was difficult to know what might happen next. Thankfully, having drive-thrus in our restaurants has been significant in allowing us to continue to serve our customers and also to keep our teams busy and employed. We also had a robust delivery and online program set up before the pandemic happened, which has helped us get products to consumers in many different ways. Our consumer packaged goods business has seen increased demand and our manufacturing teams have been working diligently to satisfy demand for those retail products. Throughout the ongoing pandemic, our focus has been on communicating quickly and accurately with our teams. We’ve done this to share both the tough news and the triumphs and we believe it has made us even closer and more trusting.

SE: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?

LI: One of the biggest changes we are presently working through is how to meet customers where they are with options on how they can best enjoy hot and tasty food from White Castle. We’ve learned a lot about making our drive-thrus even more efficient, and how to work even better with our delivery partners. We’ve also focused on our mobile app and a brand-new customer loyalty program we call “Craver Nation.” For now, we are keeping our dining rooms closed. In addition, we have seen growth in our consumer packaged goods business and consumers filling their freezers with sliders – easy to heat and fun to eat whenever they get a hankerin’ morning, noon, or night!

SE: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?

LI: We have innovated in two key ways. The first is how to communicate and take care of one another. We created a team member relief fund that reached $300,000. This investment has been a source of support for countless team members who are facing tough challenges during the pandemic. And we’ve found new ways to communicate with video conferencing and our team member app – a tool that over 90% of our hourly employees have on their mobile phones. The second way we have continued to innovate is around moving forward with the use of automation and artificial intelligence in our restaurants. Flippy (a fryer robot from Miso Robotics) will soon be working the fryer 24 hours a day at one of our Chicago region locations. We also have launched an exciting project with Mastercard AI that will guide interaction with customers when they order at one of our drive-thrus. For customers who opt in, we’ll be able to uniquely customize their drive-thru experience and provide an experience that continually gets better.

SE: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?

LI: Technology plays an important role in everything that’s next. The path to progress might be modified and changed along the way – but the problems we faced before the pandemic are the same as we face now. How can we provide more people what they want, the way they want it, and when they want it? At White Castle, our vision is to feed the souls of craver generations everywhere, and to create memorable moments every day. We see technology enhancing the customer experience by giving more power and more control to customers. Our mobile ordering app continues to grow in popularity and makes it easier for customers to have the experience they are craving wherever and whenever they want our products.

SE: There’s much talk at the moment about how the dining experience has changed and there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you and how do you think the travel experience will look three years from now?

LI: I believe that the trends around customization and personalization will continue in our industry and in many other industries. If you think about food, healthcare, education, shopping, or even nonprofit work, those that will be successful will be the ones who figure out how to make each interaction memorable and personal for each individual consumer, client, or patient. That is what we are focused on with our technology focus and our continued memorable moment focus.

SE: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?

LI: I’m excited about the possibility of personalization. The prospect of being able to enjoy special experiences crafted and created with a real insight into what’s important in that moment is compelling. I’m also interested in future adventures with my husband and our children. We enjoy seeing and exploring new places and are looking forward to a time when that’s back in our plans.

Learn more about the new Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”.

See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel & Hospitality Blog.

Lisa Ingram is President and CEO of White Castle System, Inc.  She is the fourth Ingram family member to serve as President of the iconic company – the nation’s first fast food chain founded in 1921.  She is also a member of the White Castle Board of Directors. Lisa’s career has been focused on creating value for her family business through strategic planning, revitalizing an iconic brand, balancing team member contributions while delivering on results, and injecting innovation into the daily culture. In her role as President and CEO, she oversees the entire company strategic and P&L execution.

Steven Elinson

Steven Elinson

Steven M. Elinson leads AWS Worldwide Business Development, Restaurants, the global industry practice for Amazon Web Services (AWS), with a charter to support customers as they accelerate cloud adoption. Today’s restaurant must deliver a personalized and seamlessly connected guest experience while being operationally efficient with optimized assets, high utilization, predictive analytics and quality, health and safety standard compliance. As a trusted advisor, Steven utilizes his broad knowledge and 30 years of experience to drive these guest experiences (top-line) and to increase operational efficiency (bottom- line.) Before joining AWS, Steven held various leadership roles in restaurant and restaurant technology businesses. His experience ranges from operations, training, supply chain, technology and new concept creation having created and sold a restaurant concept. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management from Purdue University, and a Master of Business Administration from Florida International University.