Eli Holbrook of Lebanon isn’t the kind of guy who likes attention; he definitely doesn’t seek it. Truth be told, he’d prefer to blend into the woods, decked out in camo, inhaling peace and quiet while patiently waiting for deer to stroll by. Sure, he hunts and enjoys the sport, but mostly it’s the serenity, camaraderie, and sense of tradition he feels out there that appeals.
You know within minutes of meeting him that he’s a good guy.
Mary Cate, his new bride, knows how much family and tradition mean to Eli so when their small wedding was being planned, she decided to make their reception more about him than her. She didn’t know, of course, that the surprise she planned would set off a media frenzy; she just wanted him to have fun and to know his favorite places matter to her.
“When I was a little kid, before I started school, I would go to work with my dad and we’d eat breakfast at Waffle House every morning,” Eli recalled. “The food is great and I got to ride around in the truck with him. Those are some of my favorite memories.”
Well, that little boy grew up and fell in love with a girl he met at Wilson Central High School. His dad, Greg Holbrook, became the officiant who married them. Because they want to build their own home soon, the young couple looked for ways to make their wedding beautiful but budget friendly.
“When we got engaged, we quickly discovered how expensive weddings can be,” Mary Cate said. “You could buy a car, instead, or put a down payment on a house with what you’d spend in one night for a wedding. We decided, instead, to do a small, intimate ceremony on our family land.”
A bit apologetically, she confessed, “My dress was just $100 and I got the veil for $5 online. Our photographer was someone who works in the county clerk’s office and overheard we needed one; she did an amazing job. I did my own makeup and hair and it fell before we even got to the reception. We didn’t have to hire anyone for music; our first dance was to a George Strait song on the jukebox.
“We wanted it to be more about each other than impressing anyone,” said the new bride. “Weddings can almost turn into a one-night pageant and the warmth kind of gets lost. It should be about family and commitment to each other.”
Eli, who had teased while they dated that they should include Waffle House in their wedding, gave Mary Cate an idea she couldn’t resist: She arranged to have their reception onsite at the restaurant he had frequented ever since childhood. Eli didn’t find out until moments after their vows.
“I’m a terrible liar, so it’s good that he never asked,” said Mary Cate, laughing about how she kept the surprise secret. “Eli thought his dad was joking when he announced that we’d all be going to Waffle House for the reception. He thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
He wasn’t alone.
“It was our honor to be part of their special day,” said Alan Pruitt, manager of Waffle House on South Cumberland Street in Lebanon. He has been with Waffle House since 2007. “It was the first request I’ve ever had like that and it was also one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
When media outlets across the country got wind of it, the news of a Waffle House wedding reception was certainly scattered, but not so smothered and covered. Social media added fuel to the fire and the story went viral.
“I wasn’t expecting that to blow up like it did,” said Pruitt, beaming. “You see negative news all the time, but to be part of something so positive and at my restaurant is so rewarding. The fact that we were included in it made us feel like part of the family.”
The manager did his best to return the favor.
“They gave us Waffle House baseball hats, their famous paper hats, of course, nametags, gift cards and coffee mugs,” Mary Cate said. “Eli has drank coffee out of his mug every morning since our wedding and he works in his hat every day. I keep telling him he’s gonna get it dirty, but he just smiles and won’t take it off. He’s not the kind of guy who says a lot, so a slight smile for him means that he’s beaming.”
“When she’s happy, I’m happy,” said Eli. “I’m a simple guy and am just thankful that I have a wife that looks out for me and would include something like that in our wedding. She thinks about what I want and not just what she wants.”
He’s grateful, too, that after serving his country as a Marine in Japan for five years, he is home and building their future in a place he loves.
“I’m thankful I could grow up here and have somewhere to come back to,” said Eli. “I’m glad I get to move on with the rest of my life and thankful for the ones who still serve. I’m thankful I’m back home. I just want to keep everything family oriented. No one eats together, anymore; I wanna keep that up and just talk to each other.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, they’ll be a bit too busy to stop at Waffle House, though it’s open on holidays, but Christmas Eve will find them back in their favorite booth to continue a tradition begun by Eli’s family long ago.
“It’s really all about family,” Mary Cate said. “It was really special to have his dad marry us. That day I woke up and wasn’t anxious at all; there was just an overwhelming feeling of peace, warmth, and genuine joy for everyone. Time just kind of slowed down.”
It was the perfect day for both of them.
Cheryl Lewis writes for Main Street Media of Tennessee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.