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Take Time to Smell the Burgers
White Castle’s latest antic is a burger-scented candle, and it’s flying off the shelves.
The burger-scented candles, available on White Castleís website, is a quirky addition to its kitsch marketing strategy.

If you walk through your front door in the near future and your house is filled with the aroma of steam-grilled hamburger and onions, try not to get too excited. You might be having a salad for dinner.

That’s because White Castle, the Columbus, Ohio–based chain known for its square-patty sliders, introduced a beef-scented candle. Part of its promotion efforts for National Hamburger Month (inaugurated in 1992 by … White Castle), the delectable and potentially deceiving candles sell for $10 each, with proceeds going to science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

While grease and ground beef is an unusual aroma for a candle, that hasn’t stopped them from flying off White Castle’s virtual shelves: The company sold out of its online stock in less than 48 hours after announcing the promotion on May 3.

“We had what we thought was going to be a one-month supply for our online store based on past sales patterns,” says spokesman Jamie Richardson. “There are some candles remaining in the restaurants, but they are moving really fast.”

Richardson says the concept of a slider-scented candle started partly in jest when White Castle executives met Laura Slatkin, founder of Nest Fragrances and a member of the Autism Speaks board, in August 2009. Slatkin has produced candles for the likes of Elton John and Princess Diana, so White Castle figured she could handle “the challenge of reproducing [our] signature beef-and-onion scent,” Richardson says.

The challenge involved finding the right balance between bun, burger, and onions. If Slatkin did not get it quite right, the candle might leave consumers with a bad taste in their nostrils.

“There was a lot of art and science involved,” Richardson says. “In fact the first iteration was a little bit heavy on that fresh bakery bun … so they modified it slightly to get to what we’re calling ‘Burger Bliss.’”

The candle sits in a ceramic replica of White Castle’s signature cardboard sleeve, a masterstroke of kitsch marketing, says Joel Cohen of restaurantmarketing.com.

“It is a fabulously innovative promotion that is able to break through the clutter of other promotions,” Cohen says. “White Castle needs to be congratulated on their quirkiness.”

Quirky works in this case, Cohen says, because, with its medieval banners-and-turrets design aesthetic, White Castle already has a reputation for embracing kitsch. Also, the candle offering, in all its silliness, has a connection to a serious cause: the fight against autism.

“That legitimizes it,” Cohen says. “If it was just a regular promotion with proceeds going to a charity, nobody would talk about it.”

The first iteration was a little bit heavy on that fresh bakery bun … so they modified it slightly.”

Cohen says the off-beat offering is a good way for restaurants to self-generate a buzz, in this case out of thin, meat-scented air. He cites McDonald’s classic Gillette safety-razor giveaway, as part of its original breakfast roll out, as another unlikely promotion that paid off. And then, of course, there was Flame, the $4 flame-broiled-burger cologne from Burger King that debuted in 2008.

Still, restaurants should be careful not to overdo it.

“You can’t keep on doing gimmicky things because the novelty wears off,” Cohen says.

For now, White Castle is enjoying a welcome jolt of interest. Its candles have been the subject of SNL and Jay Leno jokes and countless blog, Twitter, and Facebook posts. With the chain looking to raise at least $75,000 for Autism Speaks, Richardson says it will likely restock its online store soon.

“We didn’t realize what pent-up demand there was out in the market for White Castle–scented candles,” he says with a chuckle.

Of course, not every candle sold indicates someone who wants his house to smell like beef. Some are simply after a grade-A collectible.

“I am a pop culture junkie and a trailer-trash food aficionado, so this was a natural,” says Lance LeVine, who managed to wrangle four candles. “I heard about it on TV and had to have it. They add to the overall kitsch of my apartment.”

Jordan Melnick is QSR's online exclusives reporter.