As the old joke notes, it's easy to tell when it's prom season: It's the only time of year when tuxedos and gowns show up in McDonald's. But if a few fast food chains get their way, Valentine's Day might be another time when formal wear and french fries form an unlikely partnership. White Castle, Waffle House and Chik-Fil-A have all made bids to turn fried food into the new Valentine's specialty, raising interesting questions about whether or not the quickest way to the heart is, indeed, through the stomach.
White Castle is famous for its steam-cooked burgers, so it's not surprising that the company's Valentine's event promises to be hot and steamy. For couples who make reservations -- yes, reservations at White Castle -- the restaurant promises tablecloths, flowers, free dessert -- chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick, no less -- and the chance to win matching his-and-hers White Castle T-shirts. While perhaps not as impressive as some of the other fast-food Valentine's Day offerings, White Castle's might have the longest pedigree -- some outlets have been hosting Valentine's events for up to 21 years.
The Waffle House, on the other hand, is something of a Johnny-come-lately to the holiday fast-food trend, but it's trying to make up for its lack of history with an excess of elegance. Couples who make Feb. 14 reservations at the chain can expect cloth napkins, alcohol-free faux champagne, and a special menu that includes ribeye steaks and pork chops. Of course, fans of the Waffle House's famous scattered, covered and smothered hash browns can forgo the higher-end meats in favor of classic comfort food. Best of all, the Valentine's reservations mean that, for one day at least, Waffle House customers won't have to cool their heels while waiting for a table!
One fast food joint has gone the full gourmet route and is even offering a prix fixe menu. Some locations of Chik-Fil-A, the Georgia-based fast-food chain that prides itself on its chicken sandwiches and pro-cow commercials, are offering a Valentine's Day special. For $20 to $25, depending on location, couples get tablecloths, tableside service, and two full meals, including drinks, entrees, sides and desserts. Best of all, they get to take home a keepsake photo of themselves with a person in a cow suit.
It isn't hard to see why some fast food places are edging into full-service territory: According to financial information company Sageworks, it's a bright time for the industry. Last year, "limited-service" eateries saw their sales increase by 6.1%; by comparison, sit-down restaurants have only had a 3.2% sales increase.
But it doesn't take a financial analyst to see why Valentine's Day at Chik-Fil-A seems like an attractive option: Quite apart from the savings involved, many customers are likely to be lining up merely for the chance to hear a waiter say the immortal words "Would madam like some Diet Dr. Pepper to go with her carton of poulet-frit?"
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.