It's Valentine's Day, and love is in the air. But also burgers. Love and burgers. And fries. And does Gut Check detect a hint of waffle? We do!
This Valentine's Day, both White Castle and Waffle House are capitalizing on the romantic holiday by offering a (comparatively) upscale couple's dining experience. White Castle debuted its "Love Castle" two decades ago in a few locations and has since expanded the gimmick across the nation. Franchises require reservations for Valentine's Day, and couples that manage to get in are greeted by hearts, flowers, candlelight and romance in a locale best known for drunken chow-downs at 2 a.m.
"When you come in on Valentine's Day, it's just like you were walking into a steak house," says Joy Riley, a local White Castle employee since 1999. "There's a hostess who greets you, you're seated and everything, we take your meal to the table, and we just basically take the fast-food atmosphere away."
Last year Riley's White Castle was equipped with a photo booth; couples could take pictures, then download them later from the White Castle website. She says the servers dress up for the occasion in red shirts and slacks, and attendees tend to get fancy as well.
"People who love White Castle really, really love White Castle," Riley tells Gut Check.
We couldn't find any local Waffle Houses that were doing anything special for the holiday, but locations in other parts of the country are hosting candlelight meals complete with cloth napkins and "alcohol-free champagne" (sooo...grape juice?). Many WaHos will also offer special menus featuring rib eye, pork chops and the like.
All this got Gut Check thinking about love and fast food. What if Taco Bell staged a Valentine's Day fiesta? What if Sonic encouraged diners to roll up their windows and get steamy after indulging in Chili Cheese Tots? What if Long John Silver's served up oysters on the half-shell?
We called a handful of local fast-food joints, just to see if we could get them in the mood. Our methodology was straightforward: We invented a scenario wherein we're an executive assistant (you can call us Catherine) whose boss has saddled us with the task of arranging a special Valentine's Day meal for him and his special someone at the purported site of their first date -- only this time, he intends to pop the question. The transcripts of what transpired, lightly edited for your enhanced reading pleasure, follow.
To all the eager-to-please employees who pledged to go out of their way to make our Valentine's Day special: We salute you.
And to the dude at Sonic who sussed out our fake British accent: You, friend, are corporate-management material.
Papa John's Papa John's: Thanks for calling Papa John's, this is _____. Would you like to try any large one-topping for $10?
Riverfront Times: No, thank you, I'm actually calling on behalf of my employer. He would like to make a reservation for himself and his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, and we were wondering if you have any openings around 7:30?
[Silence] Um, can I ask where you're trying to call?
I mean...we...it's not a...we don't have an eat-in service.
Oh, you don't? Well, he said they had their first date at a Papa John's.
He said they had their first date at a Papa John's, and they wanted to -- there must be some that are eat-in? I thought it was this one.
Um, no, this one is not an eat-in location. I actually don't know of any eat-in locations in the St. Louis area.
Oh, really? I wonder why he said that. Well, do you have any Valentine's Day specials?
We have a heart-shaped pizza.
Are you using any, like, aphrodisiac ingredients? Like oysters, or chocolate pizza, or anything like that?
Noooo, we're not quite that upscale.
Oh, well. If I brought a photo of my boss' girlfriend, could you do her face in pepperoni or something?
I don't think we have anyone that talented here, I'm sorry.
Well that's all right. I'll try a different Italian restaurant, I guess. But here's an idea: He does want to propose on Valentine's Day. And he was wanting to, like, hide an engagement ring in something. If I brought the ring to you, could you bake it into the crust?
I'm gonna...you might want to talk to my general manager. I can't OK that. I'm sure he wouldn't really have a problem with it. His name is _____ and he'll be here tomorrow night at the same time.
Lovely! I'll call back then. Thank you so much.
Next..."Hello, Wendy's? Can you hide an engagement ring in a Frosty?" Wendy's Wendy's: Wendy's, may I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hi, I'm calling on behalf of my employer. He's interested in making a reservation for Valentine's Day around 7:30.
We don't do reservations. This is a fast-food company.
Oh. I mean, I know it's fast food, but he was wondering if I could do that.
We don't even do reservations.
All right. He told me that Wendy's is his girlfriend's favorite restaurant, and they wanted to eat there on Valentine's Day. Are you expecting a large crowd?
I'm not sure.
All right. Do you have any Valentine's Day specials?
OK. If he wanted to make it more romantic, say, by bringing a tablecloth and candles -- could he do that?
He's actually planning on proposing to his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, and he was wondering -- do you have a sign outside?
What kind of sign? Yeah....
Like, one with those movable letters. Is there any way he could come in and speak to you about getting "Will you marry me, Karen?" spelled out there?
Yeah, I can do that. That is so sweet!
They went on their first date at Wendy's, apparently.
And they're going to be at this location?
Yeah, I can do that. I'm actually off on Valentine's Day, so what day did he want to come over and talk to me?
Maybe the day before?
Yeah, that's fine.
I'll have him come in, then.
I don't work that night. Have him come in Tuesday.
Tuesday. All right, I can do that.
Yeah, we can do that for him.
What about...could you, like, hide an engagement ring in a Frosty?
Yeah, I can do that. Yeah, yeah. Yes, I can! Have him come and talk to me, and me and him can work out some plans.
Next..."The Naked Tenders Combo -- that's not for Valentine's Day?" Popeyes Popeyes: Popeyes, how may I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for my employer for Valentine's Day.
Do you have any openings around 7:30?
[Silence] Nooooo. This is Popeyes. We don't make reservations.
Oh, you don't? All right. He told me he wanted to eat there, so I just assumed that I could. So he should just come in on Valentine's Day, then?
All right. Are you expecting a large crowd? Should he come early?
Are we expecting a large crowd?
I'm not really sure. It's just based off the day.
Will you have any specials for Valentine's Day, then?
No, ma'am, just our normal specials.
Oh. I thought.... The "Naked Tenders Combo" -- that's not for Valentine's Day?
No, ma'am. That's an everyday thing.
I just read the name and assumed it was. I feel silly! Do you have fried oysters?
Do we have what?
Oysters. Do you have oysters?
No, we don't.
OK.... He told me that he and his girlfriend had their first date at a Popeyes, so that's why they're going back. And he wants to propose to her, so he was wondering if he could...if it would be possible to hide an engagement ring in something. Like a bowl of beans or something?
I'd have to ask my manager. That's over me. I'm not really sure about this.
Will you have valet parking?
You don't? OK. Well if he wanted to make it more romantic, could he bring some candles for the table?
I don't think so. I don't think we can actually allow that.
Are you afraid it will set the tablecloths on fire or something?
Um, all right. Well. I will let him know. So you're sure no reservations are needed?
Thank you so much.
Next...Long John Silver's: No oysters, no lobster, no dogs allowed. Long John Silver's Long John Silver's: Long John Silver's, this is _____.
Riverfront Times: Hello, I'm calling on behalf of my employer. He wanted me to make a reservation for him for Valentine's Day, around 7:30.
We -- we don't do reservations.
You don't? All right. Are you anticipating a large crowd for Valentine's Day, then?
No, we're not.
Do you have any specials?
We have our current, everyday specials, but we don't have any specials on Valentine's Day.
Oh. No oysters or anything?
No, we don't.
You know what they say about oysters -- 'cause oysters are, like, an aphrodisiac.
No, we don't have any.
How about lobster?
He loves Long John Silver's, because that's where he and his girlfriend went on their first date, and he wants to propose to her. So he was wondering if he could hide an engagement ring in a hushpuppy or something.
Yeah, you could do that. Just let us know when you come in.
All right. Speaking of hushpuppies actually, he also wanted me to ask.... They're very attached to their dog. Could they bring him along? He's very quiet.
We don't allow dogs or animals in the restaurant.
Well, that makes sense. If he wanted to make it more romantic, could he bring some candles for the table?
Yeah, that would be OK.
And he could bring a tablecloth also?
Do you have any wine for Valentine's Day?
We don't, I'm sorry.
That's fine. So then he should just come in? He doesn't need a reservation?
I will let him know. Thanks.
Next...Arby's: The molten lava cake. Definitely the molten lava cake.
Arby's Arby's: Thanks for calling Arby's, how may I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello. I'm calling on behalf of my employer. He was interested in making a reservation for Valentine's Day, around 7:30.
OK. You mean like to come into the lobby, or to make a catering order?
No, just to come in and eat.
Oh, well you're welcome to come on in. You don't have to make a reservation.
You don't? OK. Apparently it's where he took his girlfriend for their first date, so they wanted to go back there for Valentine's Day.
Do you have any Valentine's Day specials?
Not to my knowledge at this moment, but if we do have anything, you can always call back up and ask. They usually announce that sort of thing on the television. Or, you know, online.
Are you anticipating a large crowd for Valentine's Day?
I would imagine not.
So you don't think he'll have trouble getting a good seat? Like by a fireplace?
There's no fireplace.
You're calling Arby's....
Yes. No, I know. I've never been to an Arby's. I'm sorry.
Oh, no, you're fine.
Do you have any relatively private tables or booths?
Hmm. The most private tables or booths that I can really think of are like back seats. Less by the windows and more towards the back. Or we have rather large tables, but I don't think that would be good for a couple. However, when I would go on a date, I would always go to the table that we first had our little date at.
Oh, that's a good idea! I'll tell him that.
Yeah, that's what I used to do.
What kind of music will you have for the evening?
We mostly play -- let's see -- right now we're just kind of playing some stuff that you'd hear, like, on the radio. Like new hits.
So it's not live? It's on the radio?
No, it's not live. It's on the radio.
Now, he's actually wanting to propose to her. So if he wanted to hide an engagement ring in something, like a Loaded Potato Bite, could he do that?
We don't have that anymore, but I would suggest hiding it in a molten lava cake.
You guys would be able to do that if he brought it to you?
Yes, if he came a little bit early, or the day before. Well, probably not the day before. But if he came in a little early and was like, "Hey, you know, I'm proposing to my girl, and I want to hide this in a lava cake," we could probably do that. I don't know because of fast-food standards, but that's something -- I'll leave a note for my boss.
If he wanted to bring in some candles for the table to make it more romantic, could he do that?
Um, that's also something I'd have to ask my boss.
Do you think it's a fire hazard with the tablecloths?
There's no tablecloths, but still, the candles would probably be a fire hazard, just in general. But I'll ask. Maybe he'll think it's sweet, and he'll see if he can bend the rules.
Do you have any sort of wine selection for the holiday?
Um, no, 'cause we're a fast-food restaurant, again. So we don't really carry alcoholic beverages.
Oh, I didn't realize....
I'm just making sure you have the right restaurant, you know.
Let me just write down the little lava-cake-ring thing....
That's a lovely idea!
I thought that would be really cute. Also, you have a lovely accent.
Oh, thank you!
Next...Taco Bell didn't just hang up on us -- did they?! Taco Bell Taco Bell: Taco Bell, ______ speaking, may I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello, I'm calling on behalf of my employer. I'd like to make a reservation for Valentine's Day, for around 7:30.
I'm sorry, honey, this is Taco Bell.
You don't need a reservation, honey.
Oh, you don't?
So he could just come on in?
A Different Taco Bell Taco Bell: Taco Bell, this is ______ speaking, how can I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for my employer and his girlfriend for Valentine's Day. Around 7:30?
Yes. Do you take reservations?
Oh. No, you just -- we don't take reservations. But there'll be plenty of room for you guys to come up here and sit.
OK, well do you have any Valentine's Day specials?
No, we do not.
Oh, really? I'm sorry, I've never been to a Taco Bell. My boss just wanted me to call and find out. Um, if it's warm enough, will you have any instruments outside? Mariachis? Do you have an outside table?
No, we're a fast-food restaurant.
Ohhhhh, OK. Actually, they went to their first date at Taco Bell three years ago, and he's planning on proposing to her, and he was wondering if you could, like, hide an engagement ring in something.
No, we cannot.
You can't do that if he brings it in?
Nope. Health-department reasons. They're very strict.
Oh, interesting. All right. So you won't have any sort of entertainment?
No, we will not.
Will you have valet parking or anything?
No, we will not.
So you're not anticipating a large crowd?
OK. Do you have any drink specials for Valentine's Day?
We don't serve anything but soda. And Frutista Freeze.
Oh. Interesting! So if he comes in, will he be able to get a relatively private table?
I mean...no. I mean, this is a fast-food restaurant, ma'am. I don't know what to tell you besides that. Taco Bell is known around the world as a fast-food restaurant with no reservations and nothing like that. If you come in here, we'll give you great service if we can, but we don't have any instruments, private tables, candlelight, anything special like that. It's a fast-food restaurant.
OK, well I will let him know. Thank you so much.
Next..."I want to make sure I'm on the right page here. You are calling Hardee's. Hardee's Hardee's: Can I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello, is this Hardee's?
Yes, it is.
I would like to make a reservation for my employer and his girlfriend for Valentine's Day.
OK. Hold on one second. I'm a little bit unfamiliar here. You want to reserve a space to eat, or...?
OK, um, how many people will be coming?
Oh, OK. We don't actually have, like, a Valentine's Day spectacular or anything like that. Is that what you're thinking it was?
No, he just wants to eat there. They had their first date there three years ago. And actually, he's hoping to propose to her.
Holy crap, that's awesome!
Yeah! He wanted me to ask if you could bake an engagement ring into an apple turnover or hide one in a hamburger or something if he brings it to you.
Um, that may be interesting. I'm kind of open-minded to it, as long as we're all on the same page.
I don't want somebody to choke on it and end up with an accident or something.
No, no, of course! Maybe in a drink? Like a milk shake?
I'm sure we could work something out. [To another employee: Are you working Valentine's Day?] I'll tell you what. I need to -- we just got done getting beat up real good on this sausage-egg deal for this "Rise and Shine" today, and we're actually trying to wrap these numbers up and all that stuff right there. Um, I got me a pen here. What's your name?
Catherine. What number can I reach you at, Catherine?
OK, it's 314-754-5966.
And that is for 2-dash-14. That's actually next week.
Yes, I know! He wanted me to call and find out. I guess I just assumed that you made reservations, and I was worried that he wouldn't be able to get in.
Well, there are plenty of tables here. It's one of those things where if people would like to come in and set something up to where it was, you know, spectacular like that, I would be more than willing to offer him that area. And we can definitely work with the guy and help him out. Sounds pretty neat.
Now, I've seen your advertisements on TV, and I was wondering, do you actually have waitresses who look like Kim Kardashian or Kate Upton?
No, I don't, actually.
That might make his girlfriend uncomfortable.
I just want to make sure we're on the same page, because White Castle actually does do something....
Yes, I believe I've heard of that.
It is Hardee's that you're calling.
Yeah, I think we can work on something with him. Is he maybe planning on coming in earlier in the day to do anything spectacular? Like setting things up or anything?
Sure, he could do that.
OK, terrific. You said this is your boss?
Yes. Will you have valet parking or anything?
And will you have drink specials?
I want to make sure I'm on the right page here. You are calling Hardee's.
Yes. I'm sorry, I've never been to a Hardee's.
Well, we're a quick-service restaurant. So, you know, there's a drive-through, there's a lobby. I mean, it's not anything extravagant. But you know, if it's something special where they met, it's definitely what would work out good for them.
OK, well thank you very much. I will let him know.
Thanks, Catherine. Have a great day.
Next...Sonic: "If they roll up the windows of the car, will people come bother them after they're done eating?" Sonic Sonic: Sonic, this is _____, can I help you?
Riverfront Times: Hello, I'm calling to make a reservation for my employer and his girlfriend for Valentine's Day.
Uh, we don't take reservations.
This is Sonic Drive-In.
Yes. He and his girlfriend went on their first date to Sonic, so he told me to call and find out. I'm sorry, I just assumed that....
Yeah, no, 'cause we're a quick-service restaurant. I know White Castle does reservations, but we don't do -- you just pull up any time, and you can place an order.
You pull up? Do you have tables?
There's the patio.
Oh, OK. Do you have any Valentine's Day specials?
Since it's Thursday, we have our Jr. Double Cheesburger and onion rings for $2.99.
OK. So he can sit on the patio if he wants to?
Yeah, you can sit on the patio or in your car, whichever. We don't have a dine-in, but we do have a patio and everything.
Could he bring some candles for the table to make it more romantic?
If he wants to.
So, if he doesn't need a reservation -- you're not anticipating a large crowd, then?
No, not Valentine's Day night.
Will you have any music outside or anything?
My stereo is broken outside right now.
Oh no! You should get a string band for Valentine's Day!
Uh, I don't think my franchise would pay for that.
OK, so I have a weird question, I suppose. I know my employer fairly well. So if they pull up in the car...they can order in the car?
If he's been to a Sonic before, he should know how it works.
Yes, he probably does. He didn't really tell me much. So, if they roll up the windows of the car, will people come bother them after they're done eating?
They might get a check-back, but that's about it.
OK. Just checking. I know this man.
Yeah, we just make sure that everybody is OK. They might walk by and give him a thumbs-up.
Like, "Way to go, sir! On Valentine's Day!"
Well, no, it's just making sure they don't need anything.
Right. And there's no tablecloths or anything outside?
Good to know. So, he's actually planning on proposing, I believe. If he wants to hide an engagement ring in something that you make, would that be possible?
He would just need to talk to my assistant who's working that night. They would do something for him, they just need --
He can come earlier.
Yeah. I'm the general manager, but I won't be here Thursday, but one of my assistants can help him out.
They went on their first date to Sonic. I think that's why he wants to go back. OK, I will have him go there early then and talk to someone. Thank you so much!