Food & Drink

Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor

Arnold’s Royal Castle in North Miami, before it closed a few years ago.
Arnold’s Royal Castle in North Miami, before it closed a few years ago.

Ahh, those scrumptious sliders with a frosty mug of Birch beer.

The first Royal Castle opened in Miami on March 18, 1938. Soon they were dotting the South Florida landscape. By the mid-70s, they were gone.

Except for two holdouts, operated independently with the familiar logo, orange facade and menu.

One of those closed a few years ago. Now, there is one left, on Northwest 79th Street and 27th Avenue.

As Flashback Miami says: “Perhaps no eating place is as close to the hearts of long- time South Floridians as the string of Royal Castles. Dozens of them throughout South Florida dished out 15-cent hamburgers, nickel birch beers, and a pretty good breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast.”

The chain grew from a single hamburger stand opened by William Singer on March 18, 1938. He opened the stand at 7952 NE Second Ave. in Miami after failing in the beer business.

By the 1960s, the number of Royal Castles grew to more than 150.

More from Flashback Miami: “As late as 1961, African-Americans were staging sit-ins to gain counter service. They had been limited to using outdoor take-out windows. Women were not allowed to work behind the counter until 1967. “

And more from Flashback about the restaurant’s final years: “Over most of its history, the business was private, family owned. It went public in 1965. By 1969, the chain reported sales of $221 million from restaurants throughout the south. But while revenues were rising, profits fell. William Singer sold his interest in the company for about $6 million in the late 1960s. His son, Lawrence, ran the show for several years, branching out in unsuccessful efforts to franchise the name and opening higher priced restaurants. None of these was able to pull the chain back into the black. After Lawrence stepped down, former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins ran the company for about a year. In 1975, the company folded, by then owned by the same corporation that failed with Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken stands. “

Here is a look back through the Miami Herald archives at the last locations of Royal Castle.

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1/16/08 Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald A customer bites into one of those famous burgers at the last Royal Castle. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald File

THE CASTLEBURGER

Published Jan. 25, 2009

When John Criscuolo tasted his first Castleburger, he was sitting at the lunch counter next to his dad. It was the end stool, next to the window. His legs weren’t even long enough to reach the floor.

In the next five decades, he indulged his love of the juicy little burgers washed down with birch beer at Arnold’s Royal Castle until a fire shut down the iconic North Miami eatery more than three years ago.

But on Jan. 14, Criscuolo and other Royal Castle fans packed the small burger joint to celebrate its re-openning.

“It’s nice to get a piece of history back,” said Criscuolo, who at 59 now has legs long enough to reach the floor. He took a bite of the familiar Castleburger with cheese and took a swig of his birch beer, which to his dismay now is served in a plastic cup instead of the frosty mug he remembers from his childhood.

“Old is not necessarily bad,” he said.

Though mini-burgers, sometimes now called “sliders,” have become trendy in recent years. They have popped up on the menus of upscale restaurants, but Arnold’s recipe is unchanged.

The burgers are served just as they were a half-century ago: a pound of beef divided into 12 patties, topped with onions and grilled then sandwiched between soft white buns.

“Just one pickle chip,” said owner Wayne Arnold, who credits the grilled onions with keeping the patties moist and giving the burgers their distinctive flavor. “It’s simple, but good,” said Arnold, who acknowledges he wears his two-burger-a-day habit on his waistline.

“I need to make sure they’re good,” he said.

Arnold has owned the restaurant since 1982, but the business has been at the corner of Northwest 125th Street and Seventh Avenue since 1956. “It’s just like it used to be,” said Arnold, as a crowd that included the mayor of North Miami jostled to place their orders. “We have been packed beyond belief.”

When the fire caused by a faulty freezer compressor swept through the inside of the restaurant on Aug. 30, 2005, Arnold lost more than his business. The neighborhood also lost a landmark, he said.

“It was a very sad day,” he said. “But I made a promise to me and to everyone that we would reopen.”

Fixing up the building was not easy. Repairs cost more than $200,000, with $80,000 coming from North Miami’s Community Redevelopment Agency. Arnold said the 950-square-foot building needed some structural work as well new counters, grill, freezers and booths.

Mayor Kevin Burns said that the busy Northwest Seventh Avenue corridor was missing something without the business.

“It defines North Miami,” he said.

Smoke puffed from the grills as patrons pushed their way to the counter to place their orders. The biggest seller: the original Castleburger, which jumped in price 20 cents since the business closed. The new price: 99 cents. Most patrons didn’t seem to mind.

“These burgers just taste different than other places,” said Janet Berg, who drove south from Northeast Miami-Dade to satisfy her Royal Castle craving. “And you can’t beat the price.”

The original Royal Castle chain, with its slogan “Fit for a King,” first fired up its grill in 1937. In 1961, Arnold took his first job mopping floors at a Royal Castle in Orlando for $1.25 an hour.

The chain eventually closed, but some independently owned locations have kept the name alive. Only one other descendant of the original Royal Castle remains in Miami-Dade at Northwest 79th Street and 27th Avenue.

In true diner fashion, Arnold’s is open 24 hours a day, just as it always was. It also brought back its breakfast menu of pancakes, eggs and grits, which customers can order any time. Customer Gayle Williams said she remembers the days when Royal Castles were all over Miami.

The North Miami resident said she waited patiently for three years for Arnold’s to reopen, checking the corner each time she got off at her nearby bus stop.

“I have been missing this for sure,” she said, as a cashier handed her two Castleburgers in a brown paper bag. “I am going to have a good dinner.”

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The last remaining Royal Castle in South Florida, on Northwest 79th Street and 27th Avenue. Bennett Bramson Courtesy

Guy Fieri hosts the 2018 South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Burger Bash in Miami Beach on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2018.

THE LAST ONE

Published Feb. 28, 2008

Three emotions took Barbara Johnson when she saw the Royal Castle sign.

First, shock. Royal Castle still exists?

Then, hunger. I could use one of those good old hamburgers.

Then, delight: I’ve never seen so many black people at Royal Castle in my life.

When Johnson, 62, was growing up, she could only gaze from the outside at a Royal Castle restaurant, looking in as white people bit into palm-size hamburgers and drank birch beer. Back then, blacks could get service only through a small side window.

“When I found out it was open, I just had to come in and sit down,” Johnson said. “Because, you know, we couldn’t sit down here until ‘65.” Royal Castle was once a Miami-based chain of restaurants. Now it’s down to one — at Northwest 79th Street and Unity Boulevard.

Founded by a white family from Ohio, the store is now in the hands of a black man from Miami. And with the new owner, who started at the restaurant flipping quarter-inch-thick meat patties, Royal Castle became woven into the culture of black Miami — the very group that was banned from dining there for decades.

The architecture still looks much as it did in the old days.

At sunrise, the store’s original “Royal Castl” glows over backlit white tile. Ten silver stools stand at the red and white counter. A ‘60s-era poster for Coca-Cola hangs on the wall. “Original Royal Castle Burgers Sold Here” is painted on the windows in orange bubble letters, a reminder that the bestselling product here is nostalgia.

William Singer got the idea for Royal Castle in Columbus, Ohio. The only restaurant that stayed afloat there during the Depression, he would say, sold small hamburgers for pennies.

It was a quaint chain called White Castle.

Bankrupt and desperate to be an entrepreneur, Singer tinkered with the name and took the idea to Miami in 1938.

By 1958, Royal Castle had grown to 58 stores in South Florida. They thrived in working-class, mostly white areas, where families bought the greasy patties layered in onions, pickles and mustard by the dozen.

Under Lawrence Singer, William’s son, the chain blossomed to at least 185 throughout Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.

All had strict rules. No more than 10 stools at the counter. No women behind the counter. No blacks sitting in front of it.

“We’re following a social custom of long standing,” Lawrence Singer told the Miami Herald in 1961. “Our policy is not to serve Negroes at the counter.”

In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, sit-ins popped up throughout Miami. One Liberty City resident, James Brimberry, recalls waiting in Woolworth’s to be served, only to be kicked out. He picketed department stores such as Burdines until he joined the Army.

“We were fighting for equality,” Brimberry said. “We didn’t necessarily want integration. That was George Wallace’s word.”

The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality targeted Royal Castle. In January 1961, managers removed two black girls from seats at the counter.

“You wonder how we could have even allowed such things,” Lawrence Singer, now 84, said. “They were terrible and horrible things. . . . But when CORE started picking on us, we were actually starting to be trailblazers with integration.”

In July 1964, after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Singers sent word to employees: Blacks were now allowed at the counter. And the company needed to find black managers, quickly.

On Aug. 16, 1964, Royal Castle hired James Brimberry. Straight out of the Army, he was desperate for a job.

“They needed a black face,” Brimberry said. “And being from the military, they knew that I would be able to withhold animosity and my tongue and my anger, and deal with some of the things that would be thrown in front of me.”

Brimberry tried to be flawless. He always arrived on time. He spoke with perfect grammar. He kept his white uniform clean.

Within months, a white customer refused to eat the food Brimberry served, and spewed a racial slur at him. Brimberry said nothing.

But his ambitions changed. He said to himself: “One day, I am going to own this company.”

In the late ‘60s, as profits sagged, the company tried new marketing tricks. Royal Castle lowered the price of its 19-cent burger to a nickel in 1968 after The New York Times reported President Richard Nixon saying, “What the country needs now is a good five-cent hamburger.”

Then, The New York Times issued a correction. Nixon really said 50 cents. It went to show that cheap burgers were no longer in fashion.

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Burgers and fries at the last remaining Royal Castle in South Florida. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald File

In the midst of a family dispute, Singer grudgingly sold the company to Minnie Pearl, a comedy star at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, in 1969. The menu expanded to include breakfast, but nothing could keep the chain afloat.

On Aug. 29, 1976, the company left the name and eight stores to the last person on the payroll, then the assistant manager of operations. His name was James Brimberry. Over time, Brimberry sold seven stores. Only one of them, at Northwest 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, got to keep the name — after a legal battle that Brimberry lost — but it burned down in 2005.

Brimberry is 66 years old now. Bald with a gray beard, he walks through the restaurant with a cane, a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots. “I dress like this so I can tell people the story,” he said. “The original cowboys were black. . . . We have to hold dear to our history.”

Brimberry also thinks there are some things that have to change.

Six of his 14 employees behind the counter are women. Almost all the people in front of the counter are black. He has added “country food” to the menu: grits, runny eggs, soupy eggs, pork chops, ham. The best seller is the $10.99 T-bone steak.

“This is our food,” said William Houston — nicknamed “Slim” — who started coming to Royal Castle when he was a bus driver 30 years ago. Now retired in Miramar, he’s still coming.

“All my friends come to this store to sit and talk about everything — the news, our lives, politics. Jim, we know him. He won’t kick us out. We feel like it’s our own.”

He sat next to his friend J.C. Sears, a retired truck driver with a big laugh and belly.

As Brimberry approached, Sears eyed him and said: “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in.” A stream of customers came and went, in wonder. “My grandfather used to have breakfast at the Royal Castle in Cutler Ridge every Saturday, and I’d be with him,” Bennette Moultry, 47, of Cutler Ridge said. “I come in here, and, wow, it just reminds me of him.”

“My husband, he loves the hamburgers,” said Theresa Williams, 51, as she ordered half a dozen. “It gives him gas, though. Still, he wants it. I buy it because I love him.”

And Reggie Brown, 29: “I could go to McDonald’s, but I like this place more. It’s black-owned.”

Brimberry also has a catering company, and he works as a real-estate agent.

“This place is nothing but business to me,” he said as he sat at Royal Castle’s counter. “Just another business.’ He slouched, then looked in the direction of the side window, the only place where he himself could get a burger in the old days.

Tears welled.

“You know, I have to admit, there is a sentimental value to this place,” Brimberry said. “This is Royal Castle.” He puffed out his chest. “And I own it.”

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News coverage of Royal Castle in 1958. Miami Herald File / Flashback Miami


DEATH OF THE FOUNDER

Published July 15, 1988

William D. Singer, who opened a little hamburger stand in Miami, called it Royal Castle and became king of a chain of burger places, died Wednesday night of natural causes at Mount Sinai Medical Center. He was 87.

After two failed business ventures, Mr. Singer opened the first Royal Castle on March 18, 1938. The now-defunct restaurant chain served up hamburgers for a nickel, before there were Big Macs and Whoppers and drive-through windows.

Mr. Singer, nicknamed “Mr. Can Do It” by the press, later distinguished himself by bringing expressways to Dade and financial stability to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was a founding member of Mount Sinai Medical Center and a former Greater Miami Jewish Federation president. Two years ago, he was awarded The Miami Herald’s Spirit of Excellence Award, given to outstanding community leaders.

The first Royal Castle opened next to the old Rosetta Theater on Northeast Second Avenue at 79th Street in Little River. Mr. Singer spent $1,000 to open it. He didn’t have much money, but he had a tough, driving personality.

In 1960, Royal Castle became the third largest short-order restaurant chain in the country, behind White Tower and Toddle House. There were 175 Royal Castles in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana when the chain was sold in 1969.

Royal Castle was born after Mr. Singer’s lumber business in Cleveland, and later his Jockey Club beer brewing plant in Hialeah, failed. After the last loss in 1936, he vowed to make his money back in Florida.

“He had been up and down through the Depression years,” said his son Lawrence, who later took over the business. “He was looking for a Depression-proof business and the five-cent hamburger seemed to be it.”

Royal Castle hamburgers were two half-dollars wide and not much thicker. They were best served with birch beer, which came in tall, frosty mugs.

In early interviews, Mr. Singer gave a couple of reasons for settling on a hamburger chain.

“I had three children growing up and I was broke. I figured they would have something to eat,” he said. More seriously: “There’s one business that never fails. Whether we have wars, revolutions, elections, depressions or atom bombs, people always have to eat. In a sense, it’s the primary object in life.”

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1/16/08 Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald James Brimberry’s Royal Castle on NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald File

For a while it seemed true: Royal Castle could not fail. The little restaurants — with orange and white exteriors, a crown for a logo, the motto “Fit for a King” and bar stools around a counter — sprouted throughout the state. Mr. Singer hardly ever had a problem building more.

In 1964, when the county planning board voted against a Royal Castle at Northeast 78th Street and Biscayne Boulevard — most Royal Castles were on corners — Mr. Singer pleaded before commissioners. They agreed with him that the building, with glass walls, would not obstruct drivers’ visions.

Mr. Singer was well known in political and civic circles. He was part of a group of businessmen that wrote the Metro-Dade charter approved by voters in 1957. Twelve years later, he and other citizens pushed for a combined city-county government.

He chaired the United Fund — later United Way — drive and was founding chairman of the Jackson Memorial Hospital Public Health Trust. He traveled to Tallahassee, securing legislation to set up the Public Health Trust. With the trust, the hospital, which had been run by the county, could seek other financing.

One of his first tasks on the Public Health Trust board was to meet with auditors. They told him the hospital, in financial disarray, would have to start from scratch.

“He said, ‘Oh well, that’s a good way to go,’ “ said Katherine Fahringer, on the board with him. “He always had a positive approach. Nothing bothered him.”

From 1957 to 1960, Mr. Singer served on the Florida Road Board. His territory covered nine counties, from Indian River to Monroe.

He fought to get money to build the Julia Tuttle Causeway, parts of Krome Avenue and the Henry Kinney tunnel on U.S. 1 in Fort Lauderdale.

“There was a lot of opposition to the highway system, but he didn’t pay attention,” said friend Don Shoemaker, the former editor of The Miami Herald. “He kept slugging right ahead. He was one of the real creators of modern Dade County.”

In 1959, with Dade complaining about bumper-to-bumper traffic and state and federal agencies complaining about lack of money, Mr. Singer proposed a solution: raise $46 million in a local bond issue and lend $40 million of it to the U.S. Bureau of Roads. The money was used to build the Palmetto Expressway.

He explained in 1960 his part in the process: “I am an expediter and a sort of public relations man.”

With the roads board taking up more of his time, Mr. Singer turned the Royal Castle business over to his son. At about the same time, his first wife Esther was diagnosed with cancer.

Mr. Singer and Esther flew around the world looking for a cure, but to no avail. She died in 1963.

By the mid-1960s, Royal Castle was straining to compete with larger fast-food and pizza chains. It brought other problems onto itself: as late as 1961, blacks were staging sit- ins because the restaurant only served them through takeout windows. Women were not allowed to work behind the counter until 1967.

The family-owned business went public in 1965. Four years later, it was sold. William Singer got about $6 million for his interest. Former U.S. Sen. Richard Stone, who married one of Mr. Singer’s daughters, was secretary for the corporation for a while.

By 1975, only 85 Royal Castles remained. The owners, Performance Systems of Nashville, decided to fold that year. Mr. Singer continued to dabble in real estate, putting Royal Castle behind him. “I’m not emotionally interested in it,” he said in 1982. “I want to forget it. I lost interest in it when I sold it.”

Burger-lovers of Miami are getting the first taste of McDonald's new style hamburgers beginning Tuesday, March 6, 2018. McDonald's is unveiling it's new fresh, never-frozen, made to order Quarter Pounders and specialty burgers in its Miami restaur

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