Benjamin describes White Castle cuisine as “two steps above dog food.” He also says his Valentine’s Day dinner there in 2022 featured some of the best table service he’s ever had.
Benjamin, who asked to be identified by his first name only, is one of thousands of people who attended White Castle’s annual Valentine’s Day Dinner, an event where couples reserve tables to dine-in at the slider-peddling fast food chain, which is decked out with a full wait staff, festive red and pink heart decorations, and tablecloths. “They dimmed the lights so you have this very romantic lighting but you still see all the White Castle branding and stuff,” he says.
The tradition of offering reservations on Valentine’s Day started 28 years ago in St. Louis and Minneapolis, but soon spread to other locations in New York, New Jersey, Detroit, and Chicago. Now, all White Castles accept reservations on Valentine’s Day.
According to White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson, the event has always been popular, but the amount of reservations requests has “grown exponentially” in the past four or five years.
Last year, White Castle partnered with reservation service Open Table and received 30,000 bookings. This year, three weeks out from Valentine’s Day, Richardson says the company has already booked 70 percent of the reservations they did last year — 7 percent more than last year’s bookings at this time. And, because White Castle isn’t “bound by the normal constraints of space and time,” some locations will be extending reservations until February 15.
Richardson believes the event is popular because it’s “one-of-a-kind” and people like “being relaxed and enjoying the nourishment from hot and tasty food.” But a more likely explanation is the generally accepted fact that Valentine’s Day is a joke.
Most holidays today are vessels of capitalism, and we’ve all kind of made peace with that. But Valentine’s Day is extra offensive — the apex of Hallmark holidays even — because it lacks any form of sincerity. Unlike Christmas or even Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day doesn’t inspire warm fuzzies as much as it does anxiety and resentment. Want to show someone you care about them? Buy them flowers, cards, or chocolates on a day that most likely holds no significance for either you or them.
This is all to say, Valentine’s Day is an obligation, not a celebration. You don’t want to participate (read: spend money), but are programmed to believe that not participating communicates that you don’t care. Enter: White Castle Valentine’s Day Dinner. The perfect mix of special, silly, and self-aware. A cheap way to celebrate a holiday that really doesn’t deserve any celebration.
Caleb Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at Arizona University, studies ironic consumption. He says that consumers who choose to spend Valentine’s Day at White Castle are dodging the overwhelming norms the holiday demands, like expensive gifts or fancy dinners. “One way to resist or distance yourself from [Valentine’s Day] baggage is to ironically participate by going on a date at a place that seems categorically low-end or unromantic,” he says.
Warren says that by ironically consuming on the “holiday of love” these dissenters are simultaneously communicating that they don’t buy into Valentine’s Day, don’t take themselves seriously, and that their relationship is so strong they don’t need to do anything expensive. They’re also branding themselves as independent thinkers who, free from the social pressures of the holiday (despite the fact that they are, indeed, at a heavily advertised V-day dinner).
Benjamin and his then-girlfriend used to indulge in fast food frequently, so when one of them suggested making reservations at White Castle, they both were all-in.
Although they made reservations half-jokingly, Benjamin says it ended up being the most fun Valentine’s Day he’d had yet.
“You can do something both ironically and sincerely at the same time,” Benjamin says. “It’s in the same area of culture as professional wrestling and old heavy metal bands. On the one hand, you can be sincerely very into it and committed to the pop culture moment that they have. But at the same time you understand what you’re doing is tacky and stupid.”
White Castle isn’t the only fast-food chain offering tacky nothings on Valentine’s Day. This year, Subway is marketing itself as serving the perfect Valentine’s Day cuisine by having The Bachelor stars Sean Lowe and Catherine Giudici eat one of the chain’s newest products at the hotel The Joule on the special day. Papa John’s and Pizza Hut sold heart-shaped pizzas in 2022, which resulted in some pretty bleak, not-so-heart-shaped pizzas.
Happy Valentines Day At White Castle
White Castle is switching up a long-running Valentine’s Day event that lets people book a romantic dinner given COVID-19 concerns. With restrictions on indoor dining, the chain will transform about 300 of its locations into “classic drive-ins, complete with carhop service,” an announcement said.
Customers can book a time for a socially distanced Valentine’s Day date at the burger chain via the OpenTable website or app. Once guests arrive, the restaurant will direct them to a parking space, where a White Castle employee will take their order and deliver it to their cars. The “Slider Lover’s Point” event marks the 30th anniversary of Valentine’s Day celebrations for White Castle.
White Castle’s revamped Valentine’s Day activation is another sign of how brands have responded to the pandemic with operational changes that maintain a sense of continuity for consumers.
With many people seeking reminders of happier days, White Castle is providing a Valentine’s Day experience that does so while helping to distinguish its brand. The company’s Valentine’s Day tradition started as a joke 30 years ago at a handful of restaurants that transformed their dining rooms into upscale restaurants with tablecloths, hostess seating and wait service.
The concept proved to be popular and enduring, with bookings last year growing 14% to more than 30,000 at White Castle locations in 14 states, Restaurant Business reported. The higher attendance was partly attributable to letting customers make reservations on OpenTable, a service first linked to White Castle in 2018, and a social media campaign promoting the offering.
Valentine’s Day typically is an occasion for special promotions as consumers open their wallets for gifts, dinners, flowers and candy, but outreach channels have obviously been disrupted by the coronavirus. Because this year marks the 30th anniversary of its Valentine’s Day celebration, White Castle wanted to continue the tradition, but in a way that let customers practice social distancing in the safety of their cars. As part of its effort to improve the in-car experience, the brand plans to hand out brochures with suggested activities to keep customers entertained while they wait for their food to arrive.
White Castle will offer a Spotify playlist called “Slider Lover’s Luv Channel” that includes a mix of romantic songs, shoutouts to loved ones and personal stories from customers. The restaurant chain will ask people to submit their shoutouts on social media before Valentine’s Day. Customers who don’t want to book a reservation can still order food, including White Castle’s special “20-Slider Crave Clutch,” at the drive-thru or for delivery, per its announcement.
White Castle’s reformatted Valentine’s Day event marks the second time in the past few months that the restaurant chain has observed a 30th anniversary. For Thanksgiving 2020, White Castle enlisted rapper Coolio to demonstrate how to make turkey stuffing with sliders, a recipe first introduced in 1990. White Castle also ran an influencer campaign starring internet personality Tim Chantarangsu, who urged viewers of his YouTube channel to share their ideas for Friendsgiving celebrations. As part of its effort to encourage repeat business, White Castle in September launched its first systemwide loyalty program to receive discounts on food and other special offers.