They come in stretch limos. Evening gowns. Tuxedos. There’s even a man in Westerville, Ohio, who takes out a cello and starts playing classical music in the corner. One couple, in a move that would put Harold and Kumar to shame, drove 26 hours from Montana to Chicago, had dinner, and then turned around and went back.
If you’re one of those people who believe romance was buried long ago, you haven’t shared Gooey Butter Cake on a stick with a loved one at White Castle on February 14.
For the 26th year, the family-owned brand will break out the tablecloths for its annual Valentine’s Day dinner. Jamie Richardson, the vice president at White Castle, expects some 25,000 Americans to join the tradition, which has inspired everything from first dates to engagements to actual marriages in the dining room.
“The magic happens. It’s hard to quantify or calibrate or catch all of it,” Richardson says. “But it really encourages people to have a great time and share their love of the Castle as they share their love for one another.”
Want a sharable menu? White Castle was “tapas before it was cool,” Richardson says. On Valentine’s Day the menu features, of course, the famous Sliders. There’s also Veggie Sliders, Chicken Rings, a chocolate fudge dipped brownie and cheesecake on a stick. Richardson adds his recommendations: the Pretzel Chicken Rings and the Surf & Turf Slider, which is a double hamburger, fish patty, and slice of cheese—all on one sandwich.
“A lot of places offer surf and turf for Valentine’s Day, but nobody offers it like we do,” Richardson says.
Because White Castle has been owned by the same family for 96 years, Richardson says the general managers, who average 21 years with the company, have freedom to bring the event to the next level. White Castle gives them a budget and says get creative, which owners undeniably do. Whether it’s red or white tablecloths, candlelit dining, live music, Hersey’s Kisses on the tables, or a social media backdrop to share the love, the iconic chain transforms into something that seems to bring the same kind of commitment out of its customers.
“I call it the joke of the limousine through the drive thru because people love to take it to the extreme of absolute luxury, absolute gourmet, absolute fine dining,” Richardson says. “But there’s the simple elegance of 100 percent beef steam grilled on a bed of onions with one perfect pickle on a bakery fresh bun White Castle hamburger sandwich that brings it home for them.”
On Valentine’s Day, White Castle’s already vibrant network lights up. Social media interactions explode. People are eager to share how far they’ve come, to what lengths they’ve decked out their attire, and, simply, just how much they savor the yearly experience.
“People have a lot of fun with it. I guess we’re fortunate in that we’re able to be relevant in an age where things come and go so quickly,” Richardson says. “As time has gone on, we’ve stayed true to who we are but we’ve tried to be even more available to people. We’re not everywhere—we have 383 restaurants—and we’re not the world’s largest chain, but that makes us a little bit more special I think. People are willing to go the extra distance and seek us out and that makes it, for us, even more important.”
By Danny Klein