Valentine’s Day during a pandemic? Now, more than ever, say food companies

Illustrations of heart-shaped pizza on a pink background. February 2021

iStock/Svitlana Tytska

From heart-shaped pizzas to seasonal wings, we read the press releases so you don’t have to

Every February, the food industry’s PR machine floods our inbox with too many Valentine’s Day-themed promotions to count. It’s a cycle so familiar that we can now index the gimmicks by theme: Classic deals generally feature heart-shaped anything—pizza, cookies, dutch ovens—while the more absurd have included a pizza-franchise wedding registry and at least one national wings chain that rolled out a quasi-erotic phone chatline. (Spicy!)

Valentine’s Day looked a lot different this time last year, when Covid-19 was still just a whisper of worry for most Americans. But even a pandemic is no match for the powerful force that is love food marketing.

If you like your romantic food promotions just a little bit tone deaf, we’ve got you covered. Once again, we’ve sifted through the annual press release sludge in search of the most notably bizarre, forced, and terrible holiday food promos. We’re mostly numb inside but these ones gave us a brief jolt of feeling. May they do the same for you. Happy V-Day!

I love® you. What do you do when you’ve spent 20 years and 12 million trees breeding and growing and harvesting a new apple? You promote the hell out of it on every and any occasion. 

Such is the life of the Cosmic Crisp, which has been on an extended press tour since its launch a bit over a year ago. Just last week, it was on Instagram promoting its prowess as a Super Bowl snack. Now, #CosmicCrisp ambassadors (aka influencers) are flexing the fruit’s versatility as an ingredient to serve on V-Day (perhaps because they’re red?). 

As far as holiday promotions go, this one might be a bit less of a reach: Apples hold a deep association with love, according to the University of Michigan Symbolism Project. Greek gods Zeus and Hera are said to have received them as wedding gifts, and we all know what happened in the Garden of Eden. Feeling the seductive pull of temptation yet? Cosmic Crisp apples are now widely available at most grocery stores.

Put a wing on it. Despite the pandemic, there is still so much joy and comfort to be found in the world, says restaurant chain Wingstop, in a press release announcing the return of its “fan-favorite” wing flavors. 

Maybe you didn’t get to fulfill your wing cravings during the big game last week. (We reported that fresh wings were a surprising 50 percent more expensive before the Super Bowl this year compared to the same period in 2020.) Or maybe you just want dinner. Either way, you can now recreate the nostalgia of inhaling a bucket of headache-inducingly, throat-parchingly salty and spicy fast-casual chicken wings in your own home. (Wingstop’s press release for this promotion featured an unnecessarily aggressive graphic rendition of wings exploding in flavor.)

The company emphasizes that its lemon garlic flavor is perfect for this holiday weekend, because it’s “the Romeo and Juliet of the flavor world—often kept apart, but meant to be together.” Let’s hope this Valentine’s Day ends on a less tragic note than their love did. It’s a love story, baby, just say yes?

Heart-shaped everything. Of course, it wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without heart-shaped chocolates and candies. But why stop there? Dunkin’ is hawking heart-shaped doughnuts that “are sure to make friends on social swoon,” since that’s what true love is. 

And on a less thirsty note, Cheerios is bringing back similarly-shaped cereal to promote the “heart-healthy” benefits of whole grains. Meanwhile, the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, a checkoff-funded marketing group, is selling heart-shaped gift boxes of soft and hard cheeses.

And if you heart cheese, maybe you heart pizza, too? Last year, heart-shaped pizzas became a real thing, with Postmates reporting an 1,800 percent jump in orders. Who knew? Pizza companies, apparently, because this year our inboxes were flooded with promotions, from a pizzeria offering a heart-shaped pie and wine dinner for two ($35), to Jet’s, a Michigan-based chain, offering not just heart-shaped pies, but also heart-shaped, pull-apart cinnamon sticks

The least enticing option, perhaps, is offered by Donatos, a Columbus, Ohio-based chain whose specially shaped pie is fiendishly decorated in pepperoni from “edge to edge.” Is this still a pizza, or a novelty-shaped meat bread? Which reminds us: How does one make a heart-shaped pizza, anyway? Is it an unholy fusion of two oblong doughs? Pizzaiolos, please share the secret.

Broken hearts. Donatos brags that its pizzas “come uncut as not to end up with a broken heart,” which is cute, although there’s probably a kitchen-related reason for that, too. 

For those who prefer to wallow in sadness on Valentine’s Day, there’s an offering from Sugar Plum Chocolates: a solid milk chocolate heart pizza, “topped with a festive assortment of chocolate candies and finished with a white chocolate drizzle.” Sounds like a toothache. But the pain doesn’t end there: The chocolate comes with a small wooden mallet to “break this heart into bite-sized bits, knowing it’ll never return the favor!” Delicious.

The exuberance is pathological. And the little mallet looks like it’s meant more for hammering a nail, or striking punches and chisels, than it is for ripping through dough. And all of this hoo-ha begs the question: Is this even a pizza, really, or a brittle chocolate dessert that’s riding the coattails of a bizarre trend? Something to think about as you hammer the $40 confection to pieces.

Wilted. On Wednesday, meatpacking company Tyson suggested that Americans “celebrate love” through chicken nugget bouquets, a move that was met with swift backlash from at least one public interest advocacy group. Some of the nation’s earliest Covid-19 outbreaks were centered in meatpacking facilities, including Tyson’s, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the company’s shareholders voted down a proposal that would have mandated more oversight on employee protections. Where is the love?

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Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.