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White Castle craving pays off

Dick Gardner accepted his Hall of Fame plaque speaking harmonically," he said. (submitted photo)1 / 3
Dick Gardner poses with his plaque. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
Billy Ingram opened the first White Castle with $700, in Wichita, Kan. The first White Castle in St. Paul opened in 1926. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

Dick Gardner ate his first White Castle hamburger when he was 9 years old. Now, 65 years later, he's still eating them.

He's such a loyal customer he's been officially recognized.

Gardner, a Cottage Grove resident, is one of nine others from east of the Mississippi River inducted into the 2009 White Castle Cravers Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 12.

"I probably eat at White Castle in Inver Grove Heights two to four days a week," Gardner said in a recent interview.

"The flavor is like nothing else," he said, and continued to describe just how the famous 3 by 3-inch burgers are made.

Gardner and the other inductees, along with wives and family members, were flown to the White Castle headquarters for an awards banquet, tour of the plant and a multitude of company giveaways, each embossed with the White Castle logo.

Gardner played his harmonica as he accepted his award. Although officially retired from the Harmonicats, he still teaches, repairs and restores harmonicas in the metro area.

To earn a place in the Hall of Fame, Gardner wrote the story of how he found White Castle hamburgers as a boy and sought them out wherever he lived and worked. The story is printed below.

Gardner's winning story

This story started way back in the war year 1943. Our family was transferred to St. Paul when our Dad was in an "essential industry," the American railroad industry. With a wife, four sons, a railcar full of possessions, Dad embarked on finding a new home, job and totally different city living vs. North Dakota small prairie town living. Because the train brought all of us to St. Paul at 5 a.m. in the morning, breakfast was unavailable to a hungry family. The hotel clerk told us there was a White Castle nearby, which had great coffee, rolls, baked bean crocks and great little hamburgers.

The sight of four hungry kids, weary from overnight travel must have been remarkable to the staff at the Castle, then the old minicastle, No. 25 downtown, now gone due to urban renewal. The four boys were mesmerized at the two sides by 30 hamburgers, steaming away behind the glass. That Castle had six or eight stools, a stand-up perimeter window counter and the usual take-out section. The price of one White Castle was a mere 5 cents. Just watching the operator smoothing out the bed of onions, placing the 30 patties of beef on the now bubbling bed of aromatic goodness, topped with the buns made the boys' anticipation almost unbearable. Finally, it all came out on nice heavy china plates, steaming hot, making Minnesota's newest citizens a banquet on a budget that is talked about even to this day.

Now, at 74 years of age, I cannot drive by a White Castle. The 64-cent price is no barrier at this stage of our lives, the coffee is still the best on the planet and the people who are your storefront greeters make every trip like another trip back home, back in 1943.

Ironically, I grew up to be a Railway Express delivery truck driver in St. Paul in 1955. Yes, two of my stops were the first White Castle of my memory and the University Avenue at Lexington store. Because the hamburger buns were baked in St. Louis back then, every morning I would get my truck fully loaded with the large master cartons of fresh baked Castle buns.

The bosses would load up my truck, slap a handful of waybills in my hand and tell me, "Get those buns out to the White" I did what I was told. On very cold mornings, I would back up close to the kitchen delivery doors, rush the bun boxes inside, then relish a most welcome hot coffee and often a handful of hot White Castles or a breakfast Danish.

Nothing has changed. The old timers that recall my visits -- now mostly retired or gone -- would remind me often of those great homey visits. To this day, I feel more like an employee or family member than a customer. I carry a small bank in my Toyota Tacoma to this day, often baling out the shift managers at No. 25 when change gets scarce.

During the 30 years traveling with the Harmonicats, the original world famous trio that recorded a 20 million hit recording, "Peg O' My Heart," my eyes would always search for a White Castle, especially when in the eastern half of the country. What an adventure. I treated some fans to hamburgers on Long Island, N.Y., to the western suburbs of Chicagoland. All were remarkable, somewhat different, but all very well run and enjoyed by the Harmonicats and their many fans and friends. I would often mention the Castle from the stage, evoking lots of comments during and after the shows. I really became an unofficial ambassador and own the title to this day.

Under the strong guidance of "Super Woman" Heidi Kachel, general manager, the tradition of hot food, great service and welcoming traditions continue. When the original corner location was replaced with a new building a few feet further on the corner of Robert Trail and Southview Blvd., Inver Grove Heights ... I took it on myself to photograph virtually every brick that came down in demolishing the old building, which was like Fort Knox, one contractor told me ... to the opening day festivities of the new White Castle. Yes, I have a photo of the first customers, a senior couple, enjoying their favorite treat, White Castles, fries and that great coffee. The entire photo collection was put on a CD disk, and given to the managers. Long live the White Castle legends.