He meant it as a joke.
When Alex Beniak told his wife, Brittany, he was going to take her to White Castle for Valentine’s Day, he thought he was kidding.
But on Feb. 14, the couple found themselves seated at a candle-lit table inside the chain’s Lake & Blaisdell location being served sliders and fries by waiters.
“This is so fun,” Brittany Beniak exclaimed as she praised the tableside service and ambiance.
The Beniaks said they’ve found a new tradition, and they aren’t alone.
Every year, thousands of couples celebrate Valentine’s Day by satisfying their cravings. The tradition began 29 years ago, and it may have started in Minneapolis. Some believe it began in St. Louis, but no one is sure.
This year, more than 30,000 people dined at White Castle restaurants to celebrate the holiday, said Theresa Kaszubski, a regional director for White Castle who oversees restaurants in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio.
At first, local store managers thought it would be a fun way to do something nice for their regulars, she said.
“It just grew,” she said.
Now hundreds of White Castles in 13 states hold Valentine’s Day celebrations and the company operated a pop-up holiday location in San Antonio. Kaszubski said the Lake Street location is known for putting on a great event and many of the managers have been doing it for years.
“I always work Valentine’s Day because it’s so much fun,” said Mesha Knox, a store manager.
Knox, a South Minneapolis resident, has been working at the Whittier White Castle for four years, three as a manager.
To prepare the dining room, the restaurant closes its interior at about 1 p.m. and starts to decorate, Knox said. By the time guests arrive at 5 p.m. for their reservations — yes, you need reservations — the inside is transformed. Heart balloons dangle from the ceiling and streamers line the walls. The booths are covered in pink tablecloths, candles and flowers. Staffers who usually run cash registers don red aprons and serve guests at their tables. The Whittier location had 130 reservations this year, Knox said.
This year, Knox was in charge of decorating, checking in guests and seating them, but she said her favorite Valentine’s Day role is being a server. Her first table ever was a couple who had been coming to White Castle to celebrate for 20 years. She said a diverse crowd of customers make the pilgrimage each year — young and old, of all races, people with children, groups of friends. This year, an older gentleman got down on one knee and serenaded his wife in the dining room.
I’d been planning my own White Castle celebration for a year. Last Valentine’s Day, my girlfriend and I were heading down Lake Street on our way to Midtown Global Market when we passed the decked-out White Castle full of balloons and candles and happy couples. We couldn’t help but feel we were missing out. By the time I went to make an OpenTable reservation on Feb. 10 (White Castle had to start using the service in 2019 because taking down reservations was occupying too much staff time) only the 8:30 p.m. slot was available.
Valentine’s Day isn’t a real holiday, of course. It’s the creation of a cabal of chocolatiers, florists, card-makers and restaurateurs to stuff their pockets under the cover of love, and celebrating it usually makes me feel like a mark. But the ambiance and mood inside of White Castle overpowered my cynicism. People were having fun. The staff and customers exchanged laughs. We were able to scarf down 10 burgers, two large fries, an order of chicken rings and gooey butter cake for dessert — all for under $30. We left laughing and knew it was by far our favorite Valentine’s celebration.
After all, you can’t buy love, but you can crave it.