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(Xenia Latii)
(Xenia Latii)

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Love and Cheeseburgers

A journey into the fast food wedding industrial complex

Caragh Brooks never meant for her wedding to go viral.

Back in 2009, she and her fiancé, Paul Brooks, just thought the whole thing would be funny. They’d met on an online dating site and discovered they had the same last name. Caragh soon moved from her native Melbourne, Australia, to join Paul in his hometown of Normal, Illinois, where he proposed on New Year’s Eve. They then settled on something that seemed just as ridiculous as getting married in the first place: They decided to have their ceremony at the local Taco Bell.

They were going to do it stealthily — just walk in with a friend who’d gotten ordained online and say their vows — but the more friends they told about their matrimonial plans, the more insisted they had to be there to witness it. Suddenly 40 people wanted to come see the Taco Bell wedding, so Caragh and Paul sat down with the establishment’s manager to give a heads up. They were told that the restaurant would pay for everything — Taco Bell food for everybody, special decorations, "Will you marry me?" hot sauce packets, the whole shebang — on one condition: that the Brookses let Taco Bell contact the newspapers. Caragh didn’t love the idea, but who turns down free food? So they agreed, becoming man and wife in a booth by the front door, the bride wearing a hot pink dress she bought for $15.

And then … the story exploded.

They got a segment on the local news; "‘I Do.’ Now Pass the Hot Sauce," quipped CBS. That the ceremony took place in Normal made the jokes too easy: "Normal couple, Paul and Caragh Brooks, marry at Taco Bell," wrote The New York Daily News; "there was nothing normal about this wedding in Normal, Illinois," drawled an AP correspondent. CBS’s The Early Show flew them to New York, where they were presented with a three-tier wedding cake made of Ranchero Chicken Soft Tacos live on air. David Letterman even had a go, dubbing them "the Taco Bell marriage kids."

"I guess no one gets to choose their 15 minutes," says Caragh.

Caragh and Paul Brooks — who split up after 11 months and divorced two and a half years after their ceremony — were not the first couple to carry out a fast food wedding, and they certainly won’t be the last. Starting this summer, visitors to Taco Bell’s flagship restaurant in Las Vegas will be able to plop down $600 and order a wedding right off the menu. (It’s not as simple as it sounds: Taco Bell’s website clarifies that ceremonies can take place "within as little as four hours" after they’re ordered, meaning they aren’t quite a slapdash, chalupas-and-vows sort of deal.) Couples around the world, in fact, have been turning to fast food venues for their nuptials for years. So what are these ceremonies like? What is it about drive-throughs that inspire people to get hitched? And why, in a land full of churches and temples and beaches and city halls, do some lovebirds flock to their neighborhood burger and taco joints to tie the knot?

Taco Bell is not the first fast food chain to formally sanction weddings. McDonald’s has a wedding program in Hong Kong, while Domino’s recently started offering a wedding registry service. For a time, KFC sold a fried chicken corsage. And couples have been marrying in restaurants for years, with or without corporate blessings: Shake Shack once organized a mass wedding in Las Vegas, complete with an Elvis impersonator; and in 2010 a couple exchanged vows at a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Jersey. Three years later, seven couples were married in a Krispy Kreme just off highway 169 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by a pastor who promised to carry out each service in 20 seconds or less.

Often, couples choose a restaurant for its role in their relationship. In 2008, a Georgia man married his Waffle House coworker in the restaurant’s parking lot after he finished his morning shift, and an Ohio couple wed in 2006 at the McDonald’s where they, too, met as coworkers. In 2015, an employee at a McDonald’s outside London wed the vending-machine company director who had wooed her there; she was given away by her former manager beneath a golden balloon arch. Last June, another British couple married at the McDonald’s where they had their first date. That same weekend, Chelsea Wood and Ronnie Thompson tied the knot at the Sonic Drive-In in Hamilton, Ohio, where they, too, met as coworkers; the ring bearer delivered the rings on rollerskates as the general manager, who also met his wife at Sonic, looked on.

And then there’s White Castle. A lot — a lot — of weddings happen at White Castle. There was a 2010 ceremony in Louisville, Kentucky; then one in Columbus, Ohio; another in Warren, Ohio, at the branch where the couple met; one along the Jersey Shore, where the restaurant posted "CONGRATULATIONS CASSANDRA + MARC" on the marquee sign out front; one in the suburbs of Chicago; one in Mount Juliet, Tennessee; and another in Old Bridge, New Jersey. "I just love the burgers," the latter Jersey bride explained. "I could sit there and eat burgers all the time."

As it happens, the frequency of weddings at White Castle is no coincidence: The chain actually seeks out couples hoping to get hitched there, regularly partnering with local radio stations to locate them. Jamie Richardson, vice president of the nearly 400-restaurant chain, speaks with pride about the company-sanctioned bliss: Seventy-four couples — that’s 148 human beings — have celebrated their nuptials at White Castle since 2010. "We’re really and truly honored we get to be a part of people’s lives that way," he says.

Richardson has been with White Castle for 18 years, and it is possible that the only thing he loves more than burgers is burger-inspired love. Since 1991, White Castles across the country have hosted an annual Valentine’s Day event, where the restaurants lay out white tablecloths, offer table service, and take reservations for dinner. Richardson likes to swing by weddings if he happens to be in town for them; once he attended a ceremony at White Castle no. 17 — 3705 Bardstown Road, Louisville, Ky. 40218 — where five couples got married at once. "It’s amazing," Richardson says, "what you can do with blue and white crepe paper."

He also boasts about the longevity of White Castle unions. "Our unscientific research indicates that marriages that begin at White Castle are destined to be happier and have a much lower divorce rate," Richardson says. "We don’t know of one couple that’s gotten married at White Castle that’s ever been divorced." While there’s little in the way of data to back that up, it does seem like the reviews of White Castle couples tend toward the positive.

Brenda and Rick Hohweiler (Courtesy of Brenda Sparks Hohweiler)
Brenda and Rick Hohweiler (Courtesy of Brenda Sparks Hohweiler)

Brenda Sparks Hohweiler and her now-husband, Rick, had a long history with the White Castle in Sharonville, Ohio: In the 1980s, it was the hangout of choice for their group of friends. They reunited later in life, and Rick’s son heard about a White Castle wedding radio contest shortly after Brenda and Rick got engaged. So they sent in an entry: "[In the ’80s] we parked our souped-up cars at the street, stood around talking, eating White Castles and drinking Coke," it read. "To be married in the place where we met 29 years ago and a place that means so much to our friends would be truly special."

And, on February 14, 2013, they were. "We go back every year for our anniversary on Valentine’s Day," says Brenda. "They know who we are, and a couple of years they’ve even given us a little ‘Happy Anniversary’ cake and flowers."

The fast food wedding, of course, is not for everyone. And for all the happiness that a new marriage can bring, internet commenters have a way of making their disapproval of the unconventional venue choices known. After the Hohweilers’ wedding made the news, Brenda says she was shocked by how many people had nasty things to say about it online. The ceremony, she stresses, was very tasteful: A local pastor came in, and her nieces served as bridesmaids. "It wasn’t like some people would imagine. [The staff] treated us with respect — they weren’t sarcastic, and they didn’t turn it into a game or anything. It was just really, really nice."

Eight years after her ceremony, Caragh Brooks says that she still struggles to avoid people bringing it up in conversation. "The worst part for me is meeting new people or going to interviews and hoping that they haven’t Googled me, because it’s one of the first things that comes up," she says. "Back when I did my master’s degree, at the end of the initial interview, one of the supervisors asked me if I got married in a Taco Bell. Like I honestly can’t escape it. It’s a little bit shit."

Before ridiculing couples who get hitched in burger joints, though, consider that the average cost of a wedding — the too-cold ballroom, the rental chairs, the mass-prepared chicken, the photographer, the diamond, the dress, the band — is now $35,329, according to a poll conducted by The Knot. Consider that maybe — just maybe — there’s something to planning a wedding that’s anchored to something you actually do as a couple, even if that something is greasy and transfatty and stinks up your car, that perhaps there’s something lovely about knowing that should you like to revisit your big day, it’s only an off-ramp away.

Jasmine Pugliese’s daughter was 7 months old when her girlfriend of five years, Mariana, called her to ask how much she loved her. "I gave my usual answer: from here to the moon and back," says Jasmine. "And she’s like, OK, good, because I signed us up to win a wedding."

The New York radio station Z100, Mariana explained, was having a contest. The winner would get an all-expenses-paid wedding at a White Castle in the Bronx. Two weeks later, they got the call. They bought blue slacks (for Mariana) and a blue gown (for Jasmine) to go with the restaurant’s decor. For 30 minutes, the White Castle was all theirs — drive-through aside, where befuddled customers continued to roll through in cars — with staff bringing out platters of sliders, chicken rings, and mozzarella sticks, and Z100 offering a champagne toast to all. Matching silver rings were provided.

Mariana and Jasmine Pugliese (Courtesy of Jasmine Pugliese)
Mariana and Jasmine Pugliese (Courtesy of Jasmine Pugliese)

"Not for nothing, but Greg T officiated our wedding," says Jasmine, "and that’s not something everyone gets to say."

Caragh Brooks, for her part, has no regrets about getting married in a Taco Bell, though she hadn’t heard about its new wedding program. "Somehow," she says, "I feel like Paul and I should be making money from it."

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