COLUMBUS, Ohio – White Castle's quirky reputation for peddling small, square burgers at all hours has stirred cravings in some unlikely places — department stores and clothing retailers that cater to teens.
Department store chain Lord and Taylor (search) has T-shirts with four designs featuring White Castle's logo and slogans. Apparel chains including Hot Topic (HOTT), Buckle and Urban Outfitters (URBN) also sell the clothing.
"This is part of that vintage-inspired retro look that is so hot right now," said Regina Norfolk, a spokeswoman for the Filene's and Kaufmann's department stores, which carry the shirts in their stores throughout the Midwest and Northeast. "The shirts are very successful."
Analysts describe the 83-year-old White Castle's (search) appeal as kitschy, and say loyalty to the brand stretches beyond the 10 mostly Midwestern states where the Columbus-based chain operates. Many expatriates of cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York take with them fond memories of eating the diminutive hamburgers in the wee hours of the morning.
Norfolk said she was surprised to find out that the shirts sell well at Filene's Boston-area stores, although there isn't a White Castle within 50 miles of the city. Scott Morton, a buyer for Hot Topic, said the shirts also have sold in his chain's West Coast stores.
T-shirt maker Earthtones has sold between $750,000 and $1 million in White Castle shirts, blue ski hats and blue wristbands since January, according to owner Larry Levine. He said the clothing is among the most lucrative merchandise for the company, which also makes T-shirts featuring John Deere, Lionel trains, Jim Beam whiskey and 4-H.
"There is a cult phenomenon around White Castle. It's one of those retail brands that has a story to it," said Lois Huff, senior vice president for Retail Forward, a Columbus firm that researches clothing retailers. "Most restaurants are not like that."
White Castle has made it into the movies — characters in the movie "Saturday Night Fever" eat at one of the chain's outlets, and cravings for the burgers figure prominently in "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle," a movie to open July 30 across the country.
Pop star Nelly raps about eating at a White Castle in his hometown of St. Louis, and the restaurant is mentioned in more than one song by New York natives and hipsters the Beastie Boys.
White Castle's status as one of the first burger chains contributes heavily to the nostalgia, experts say. Dozens of White Castles opened in the 1920s, years ahead of McDonald's (MCD), which traces its company history to its first franchise agreement in 1954, and Burger King, which began the same year.
"You've got generations of people who have gone to White Castle," said Scott Hume, executive managing editor of Restaurants & Institutions, a food service trade magazine.
White Castle's burgers — two of which would fit on an index card — also appeal to young people because they are cheap, Hume said. The burgers typically sell for about 50 cents.
Earthtones, based in suburban Blacklick, designs and sells the apparel directly to clothing stores and pays royalties to White Castle. One design features the company's logo — a castle wall with the restaurant name in calligraphy — in blue on a white shirt with the "Always Open" slogan. Another features a hamburger on a gray background with the words "A legend in a bun."
Kim Bartley, White Castle's vice president for marketing and development, said the clothing's benefit goes beyond the money it brings in.
"Every time someone's walking around with those T-shirts out there, it's a walking billboard for the brand," she said.
Hume said it's unusual to see apparel related to fast-food restaurants in stores because the licensing process typically involves ceding some control over an image. However, McDonald's has licensed its brand for apparel sold in department stores in China, and plans to introduce a line of clothing, toys and other merchandise in other countries, spokeswoman Julie Pottebaum said.
It's more common to find merchandise on restaurant chains' own Web sites, where Internet surfers can buy McDonald's baseball caps, Jack in the Box boxer shorts, Chick-fil-A watches or Subway polo shirts.
Timing may be helping the White Castle sales. Clothing retailers clamor for merchandise that evokes popular culture from decades past. Stores catering to teenagers or young adults are filled with "old-school" T-shirts emblazoned with everything from McGruff the Crime Dog to the Mack Truck logo.
Sarah Lammon, shopping at a Hot Topic on a recent Saturday, said it makes sense to see the burger chain among the retro designs. "White Castle has sort of this old-school reputation, and everything retro seems to be coming back," she said.
But Adam Canell, said he wouldn't wear a White Castle T-shirt: "When it comes right down to it, in a month or two, they're going to be out of style."