Last week, PETA quietly broke the news that White Castle has done something really amazing. Following the release of their vegan “veggie slider” in December, the chain known for its tiny burgers and late night service has finally overhauled their bun recipe to be entirely vegan as well, meaning vegans can now consume a whole sandwich at the restaurant, and not just the vegetable-based patty. That in itself is a pretty big leap forward for a fast food chain that also offers tiny hamburgers by the case. The interesting part of the news that hasn’t hit the headlines yet is even more compelling, though. White Castle didn’t just develop a vegan bun to go with its veggie slider. The Ohio-based company has replaced the buns for all their sandwiches with the new cruelty-free bun. So, whether you order the vegan slider or an entire Crave Case, all the bread-type aspects of that meal will be entirely free from animal products.
We – like a whole lot of hungry folks – were really thrilled when White Castle debuted the veggie slider last winter, because fast food options for the vegetarian and vegan contingent are pretty few and far between. White Castle is unmistakably a late-night icon and a staple in our culture, to the extent that whole movies have been made about it. But when it comes to vegans and vegetarians, those white pearly walls may as well have been iron clad.
At the time of its launch, our excitement over the new vegan slider patty was dampened by the stark reality of the situation. If you were vegan and looking to enjoy a meal at White Castle, it just wasn’t happening. Even though the patty of the new veggie slider was vegan, the bun still contained some animal-derived ingredients, so enjoying an entire slider sandwich was a no-no. Inviting a customer to pick apart their order, separating the things they can eat from the things they don’t even want on their plate, put White Castle in a bit of a hard place. How would they ever really attract a wider customer base if they didn’t, you know, go big?
The industrious folks at White Castle knew what a bummer this was, and they actually started working on developing a vegan bun recipe prior to the launch of the veggie slider patty. Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle, felt it was the right thing to do for all White Castle’s customers. “Modifying our bun recipe to meet vegan guidelines is a great example of giving customers what they crave and delivering an identical flavor experience,” Richardson said. “So whether ordering a veggie slider or a double cheeseburger, Craver generations everywhere will be able to enjoy the taste they crave.”
Getting the bun to go vegan wasn’t easy. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome. White Castle’s commitment to serving as many potential customers as possible ultimately outweighed the challenges in switching up the bun recipe. Now that the company has successfully jumped this hurdle, it’s paved the way for other vegan items on the menu, although we’re left to our imaginations to speculate about what might be next. We hope it’s something chocolate.
The updated ingredient list for the White Castle buns still looks suspicious at first glance to a seasoned vegan label reader. It contains a few items that are typically animal-derived – although not necessarily. Monoglycerides, for instance, are added as an emulsifier, and can be sourced from animals (usually cows and pigs) but also from soybean oil and other vegetables. Another troublesome ingredient, at first glance, is l-cysteine hydroxide, an amino acid often drawn from duck feathers. It’s the thing that keeps bakery items fluffy and moist for longer than a day. However, thanks to technology, there is good news to be had. In addition to the vegetable sources of monoglycerides available, there are also synthesized means of producing both monoglycerides and l-cysteine. White Castle has worked extensively with its suppliers to ensure that those ingredients, as well as all the others, are coming from plant-based sources. (By the way, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require manufacturers to identify the sources for these on the product packaging, so there is often no way to determine whether they come from animals or plants, unless the food maker has gone through the trouble of verifying and labeling the food item as “vegan.”)
And those patties? They’re pretty tasty. They come from family frozen food purveyor Dr Praeger’s, long known for appeasing the meatless crew with tasty (and relatively healthy) offerings. The particular patty served up at White Castle is also wheat-free, although Dr. Praeger’s warns that it might contain traces of gluten, since many of its other products do.
White Castle’s veggie slider is offered with a choice of three sauces: sweet Thai, honey mustard, and ranch. Of those, the only vegan sauce is the sweet Thai, which is bit like a sweet chili sauce that you might dipping spring rolls. Sorry, vegheads – the fries aren’t considered vegan. Even though they don’t contain any animal ingredients, White Castle still fries them in the same oil they use for all their meaty fried things. Maybe soon they’ll consider setting up a fries-only fryer so vegans can order a side for the veggie slider.
Images via White Castle and veggie slider images via Yuka Yoneda for Inhabitat