Dade City’s Harry Blackledge boarded a return flight to Tampa on Tuesday evening feeling energized and appreciated, but most of all, satiated.
Over two days at White Castle’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, he’d eaten complimentary bacon and egg sandwiches on waffles, crinkle fries dunked in oil by an experimental robot named Flippy, and Castle Bites, which are small, bready pockets filled with burger meat.
The fast-food chain flew Blackledge and his wife, April, there for his induction into the company’s Cravers Hall of Fame.
In the corporate cafeteria, which he described as both “crazy” and “insane,” Blackledge learned they’ll make you a slider any way, including his cherished “bottom bun double,” utilizing two beef patties, with the top bun swapped out for a second bottom bun to better soak up “goodness from the grill, allowing more flavor profile.”
Blackledge, 53, even ate two prototype menu items he was not at liberty to describe.
He was celebrated, alongside 2020 inductee Adam Richman of “Man v. Food” fame, who’d originally been unable to attend a ceremony in person due to the pandemic, plus a handful of other fresh inductees. Blackledge gave an acceptance speech.
Silly? Perhaps, but Blackledge’s induction goes down smoother in an era when people feel more at ease unabashedly loving or at least seriously examining legacy brands, to the point they’re now fodder for quality art (see: Ben Affleck’s “Air,” the McDonald’s biopic “The Founder”), or with being brands themselves (see: social media influencers).
Anyway, Blackledge’s story isn’t about the importance of being inducted into a hall of fame that’s clearly a very clever piece of public relations. It’s about determination and cravings and hope — hope that the little guy, an insurance appraiser from Florida, might somehow lure a regional fast-food behemoth. Transplanted fans of In-N-Out, Bojangles, Cook Out, Whataburger, Taco Time and Cafe Rio, there is hope.
It started, like so many fast-food habits, with Blackledge’s parents taking him to White Castle as a kid. He fell in love, but in 1985 the family moved from Indianapolis, land of White Castle, to Tampa, land of Krystal. (Krystal sliders, he said diplomatically, are just not for him.)
He pined. On visits to Indiana, the first stop, straight from the airport, was White Castle. Sometimes, he said, he’d eat sliders on Thanksgiving as the rest of the family ate home-cooked meals. On later vacations with his wife and daughters, he’d study the map and take six-hour detours to hit a White Castle nearby.
He wrote letters to White Castle executives via snail mail, which eventually became email, which eventually became social media tags and direct messages, asking them to please open in Florida. He got by eating frozen White Castle sliders, steaming them instead of microwaving like the box said.
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In 2010, he created a Facebook page called Bring White Castle to Florida, which slowly but steadily grew to thousands of followers. Had White Castle noticed? He’d occasionally get a cryptic response like, “You never know.”
When the call came inviting him to Orlando for the groundbreaking on White Castle’s first Florida location, he thought it was just a nice gesture. Then, at the ceremony, an executive said, “We have one person to thank for White Castle being in Florida.” It was Blackledge.
He cut the ribbon at the grand opening in 2021, as hundreds waited in line for hours for sliders.
Back home in Dade City, he’ll hang the plaque, in recognition of “Your relentless dedication,” on a wall in a room with his other White Castle collectibles.
And he’ll focus on other projects: “We really need one in Tampa.”