Once upon a time, in a castle far far away, an idea was born. Behind the castle walls, a phone was picked up, a number dialed, a request made to the royalty, and a dream granted. The night would be magical: linens on the tables, guests in their winter finest, and a feast fit for kings but attainable for far cheaper. It was February 14, 1991, a date seeped in lore and history: the first Valentine’s Day celebration at White Castle.
White Castle, the 96-year-old burger chain centered in the midwest and mid-atlantic, isn’t exactly known as a first-class eatery. White Castle is a place for, above everything, tiny hamburgers that cost pocket change: the original slider with and without cheese both still run you less than a dollar. That’s why it’s truly astounding that every single year for one night only, White Castle becomes a fine-dining establishment.
Every year on Valentine’s Day, White Castle locations across the country have taken reservations, laid out fresh linens, and given table service to their patrons, much to the chagrin of local news organizations, who show up with their cameras year after year. There’s usually a special menu that gives “cravers” extra options, like “Love At First Bite” and “Turn Up the Heat,” both slider meals designed for two people. It’s ornate! It’s ludicrous! It’s incongruous!
“It was a great experience because it’s just so absurd,” says Ramon Guzman, who went on a double date with his wife and their friends for Valentine’s Day 2015. “Almost everyone was dressed up. It’s ridiculous, but honestly I would recommend it to anybody.” It’s a gimmick made for the social media age. Except, of course, that the tradition of spending Valentine’s Day at White Castle is a legitimate tradition for some, one that just happens to be more than a quarter-century old.
White Castle didn’t invent the hamburger, but it did essentially birth the now-billion dollar American fast-food business. Founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, White Castle created a brand-new business model — cheap, consistent food on the go — by creating burger assembly lines and tiny pickle-garnished buns 25 years before McDonald’s was even a glimmer in its creator’s eye. White Castle marketed to the urban working class, before anyone realized there was money to be made there. It’s a company founded on innovation, as silly as that might seem today.
Despite its significance in the nation’s fast food (and culinary) history, White Castle never gets any respect. With its white turreted buildings and tiny square hamburgers, the brand lands in the popular imagination somewhere between cheap fast food and stoner culture. White Castle’s big break on the silver screen, after all, was 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle: a movie about two friends who smoke marijuana and get so high they go on a desperate quest to find White Castle burgers in New Jersey.
But every single person I talked to from White Castle’s corporate office sounded like they were on a different type of high. People who love their jobs talk about their work with a certain reverence, an almost unbelievable joy: Add on top of that a hefty sprinkling of White Castle’s favorite buzzword “crave,” and you’ve got Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle who’s still a “rookie,” he says. He’s only been with the brand for 18 years.
Not only do customers love White Castle, the cult of White Castle loves them back. Inside the Castle walls, employees can’t say enough good things about the brand. “The good ideas happen in the restaurants because that’s where the truth lives,” Richardson says, and he’s serious. Ideas at White Castle don’t normally come from corporate, they come from the people working day in and day out at White Castles across the country. According to White Castle’s internal numbers, one in four employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, and the turnover rate for general managers is less than three percent. White Castle isn’t franchised — every single White Castle location is company owned. That means that individual restaurants can do things a little differently, or start up their own new traditions if they’re really motivated.
It’s pretty simple, but that’s how the White Castle Valentine’s Day tradition was initially born. Two women who were restaurant operation leaders in different cities, Christine Howard of Minneapolis and Gloria Hollingsworth of St. Louis, had an idea: They wanted to take reservations for Valentine’s Day dinner to make the holiday a little special at their respective restaurants. Howard was later inducted into the company’s 25-year-club in 1999. Neither woman is still with the company: Hollingsworth died in 2004, and Howard did not return multiple requests for comment.
No one knew in 1991 that the idea would balloon into a national affair celebrated by every White Castle burger joint in the country, and so no one kept a very accurate record of what happened in those early years. “It started with a neat idea and then the creativity started to come in: Why not do white table cloths? Why not take reservations? Why not make this a night unlike any other?” Richardson says. “Valentine’s Day is how we share the love at the Castle. There’s something thoughtful about being able to be in a space and place with the people you love without pretension.”
Kim Bartley, the vice president of marketing at White Castle, was working in the marketing department when that first request came in. She and the team helped make a poster for that very first year of reservation taking, but that was about as far as it went. “February in the midwest is cold and miserable,” she says. “For most of our locations, it’s a very slow month. We love our company, but it wasn’t exactly the hangout for Valentine’s Day. These managers saw an opportunity, and we thought it was just a combined win.”
For the first few years, the celebration stayed small. There is no media coverage from the first year, and no institutional memory of exactly what happened, either. But by the second year, the press was beginning to catch on. Under a headline “Ah, Romance!,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a blurb promising a “candlelight dinner” at White Castles numbered 11 and 13 with “crisp table linens, fresh flowers, and gleaming candles.” Jokingly, the article also states that employees would greet guests and serve them by saying, “Oui, monsieur. Zees ees your table. Seez slidaires? But of course.”
That year, a White Castle ad ran in the Star Tribune on February 9 advertising Valentine’s Day celebrations at 11 locations, a stunning growth for just one year in. The ad promised table-side service as well, now a staple of the White Castle Valentine’s Day event. By 1994, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the event was taking place on two nights, the 13th and 14th, and would be offered at 17 locations. An ad in that same issue of the Post-Dispatch shows a tiny hamburger flanked by two candles promising red-checkered tablecloths and “celebration like no other!”
“I would say that obviously there are lots of times where something starts locally and doesn’t take off across the country,” Bartley says. The difference, in the case of Valentine’s Day, was the media attention. “We were getting phone calls from reporters asking if this was national, and so we started asking ourselves whether it should be.” Television stations started showing up at White Castle locations, and reporters started telling stories about the people who attended the event, some in good taste, some mockingly. White Castle’s marketing team was nimble and sensed a hit. “We realized how special the event was becoming — that it tapped into something that crossed geographic boundaries and touched hearts — so we invited all the regions to participate and they did,” Richardson says. In 2003, the affair became a standard celebration.
Twenty-six years later, the only thing White Castle has standardized about Valentine’s Day is the reservation process, which now takes place through the regional offices. “We let each Castle have the ability to make their own decisions,” Richardson says. “Part of the fun is seeing the incredible ways the GMs get creative.” There’s no “requirement” that locations participate, but Richardson says that all regions are participating in 2017. At some, a red carpet will be rolled out; others will provide live music or fancy linens. At one castle in Westerville, Ohio, Richardson says, a mystery musician shows up every year to play his cello for the guests for free.
At the White Castle celebration Guzman and his wife attended in Green Brook, New Jersey, the place was “jam-packed.” The restaurant had decorated all the tables with red plastic tablecloths and plastic roses. Menus were printed out instead of visible on an overhead board, and the local White Castle team had even set up a heart backdrop against one wall where patrons could take photos. Guzman and his friends were at first skeptical of the whole White Castle Valentine’s Day affair. “My friends and I had joked about it,” Guzman says. “But I was really impressed by the amount of effort they put into it. Honestly, we had a great time.”
For Valentine’s Day, each White Castle location gets a “Point of Crave” box with posters and promotional material, and a budget Richardson wouldn’t disclose because he knows his competition is watching. “I want them to have to guess,” he says. From its very beginnings, White Castle has been bombarded with imitators. In the 1930s, copycats even ripped off the chain’s name (White Tower, White Clock, Royal Tower, and White Palace, to name a few.) Now its competitors are trying to take Valentine’s Day reservations, as well: In 2014, two McDonald’s locations in Florida whipped out the flowers and LED candles for a February 14 celebration. “You let me know, keep an eye out,” Richardson jokes of the copycats. “If anyone comes up with a Surf & Turf, they’re coming to our place and digging through our trash.”
Richardson is too polite to call them out by name, but he’s likely referring to Krystal (the small burger joint of the south), which this year issued a press release debuting its own Valentine’s Day “Surf & Turf.” Unlike White Castle, theirs isn’t a fish patty between two regular patties; it’s eight tiny burgers, a dozen fried shrimp, fries, and two Icees.
But Richardson doesn’t seem to really mind. “If others are inspired to join us, The more the merrier,” he says. “We’re not haters at the Castle.” You don’t have to hate, after all, when you know you’re doing good work. This year, White Castle expects to have more than 25,000 people make reservations to eat at their restaurant on Valentine’s Day.
Over the years, White Castle has been ridiculed by many people for their attempt at romance. But it sure seems like the Castle is trying to keep love alive. After all, just because a date is cheap, and maybe a little absurd, doesn’t mean it can’t be someone’s happily ever after.
Kelsey McKinney is a writer who lives in Washington, DC.
Editor: Erin DeJesus