The Mysterious, Mundane Magic of Waffle House
By Jim Ridley; photographs by Susan Adcock
AUGUST 11, 1997: Before a few weeks ago, it had been years since I'd darkened the door of a Waffle House. One of the last times had been on a morning two years ago when my wife, her sister, her mother, and I were sitting at the Waffle House near Opryland, and Marty Stuart roared up to the front door in a big, black Lincoln. He ordered a cup of coffee, stayed long enough to dazzle the waitresses, and peeled out in a cloud of dust. Did I mention he was wearing pajamas?
Before that, my Waffle House visits had been pretty much like everybody else's. They hadn't involved much thought beforehand, and yet I can't seem to forget them.
For instance, there was a Waffle House visit on the occasion of a friend's bachelor party blowout. I don't remember the exact year, and I don't remember many details. I do remember that two friends and I had spent two hours in an unair-conditioned station wagon in the parking lot of an Eighth Avenue strip club, waiting for the groom-to-be to meet with a "job prospect." This was in the good old days, when vice was still unchecked downtown.
Finally, he emerged from the strip joint, and we began our somber trek back to Murfreesboro. The night seemed somehow incomplete. As we neared the Murfreesboro offramp, my friend at the wheel suddenly cut across three lanes of oncoming traffic. Like a man inspired, he squealed, "Let's go to the Waffle House!"
Once seated, the groom-to-be decided to savor his last night of freedom by flirting with a fed-up veteran of the Waffle House night shift. (We'll call her Doreen.) To provide a soundtrack, he pumped four dozen quarters into the jukebox--four at a time, to insure the maximum number of plays--and programmed the dreaded "Waffle House Family" song as every selection. After a nonstop 45-minute waffle serenade, Doreen coolly tucked away her order pad, knelt beside the jukebox, and yanked the plug out of the wall. Then she drew the groom aside and--speaking for every Waffle House employee, past, present, or future--announced, "If you play that damn Waffle House song one more time, I'm gonna cut your throat with one a these dull knives."
When my own bachelor's life ended, so did my late-night trips to the Waffle House--until a recent night, when I was driving down I-40 on my way home from a late movie. The night was muggy and thick with mosquitoes, the car's AC was acting up, and a long drink of water sounded good. Just then the familiar yellow-and-black sign came into view, glowing faintly at the foot of the Charlotte Pike exit ramp. My car was scarcely parked out front before I caught the sweet, steamy smell of browning waffles.
I sat down in one of the vinyl padded booths and heard Don McLean's "Vincent" waft over from the jukebox. And then it all came back to me. Yes! I was about 10 years old, and my Aunt Nancy had demanded that we go the Waffle House. (She had vowed never to return to her usual lunch spot because she'd seen a cook there running her fingers through her greasy hair before shaping a hamburger patty.) On that visit to the Waffle House, my cousin had played "Vincent" on the jukebox. It was the sort of moment in which conspiracy theorists are born. Maybe, I thought, all Waffle House visits really are the same.
Even without the faint strains of that starry starry night, however, I would've been swimming in memories. I recalled the argument I had with a once-close friend about the frumpy way teachers always dress in movies--we had battled it out under the glow of these same Waffle House lights. I remembered the many cups of coffee, the early-morning breakfasts after midnight games of basketball--they were all served, even back then, on china the color of tooth enamel, emblazoned with the very same ring of curlicued S's. (Back then, though, the cups were thicker, and there was a design flaw on every seventh S.) When I was a teenager in Murfreesboro, hardly anything else was open 24 hours a day. It was the 1980s, and coffeehouses had died out with Nehru jackets. If you wanted to talk poetry or politics, you ordered up the famous "Bottomless Cup of Coffee" and commandeered a booth.
The Waffle House has been on the periphery of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I've always loved the 40-weight java, the waffles, the jukebox, and the unfailingly friendly waitresses, most of whom called me "hon" whenever I ordered a glass of milk. But what does anyone really know about the chain that bills itself as both "America's place to eat" and "America's place to work"? You can't get off an interstate without running smack into one of those rectangular buildings, shiny and compact as a toaster.
But I didn't know Waffle House's history. I'd never read an article about it that wasn't by Lewis Grizzard.
The garish, laminated menu offers little factual information. There's a cheery thumbs-up! at the bottom on one side ("AMERICA'S BEST as determined by an influential member of the Waffle House Family!") and a grim recitation of Georgia public-health regulations on the other ("The consumption of raw or undercooked food may cause serious illness or death"). The jukebox is no help either. A full column of songs celebrates the Waffle House experience in all its joys ("Waffle House Hashbrowns [I Love You]") and sorrows ("Overdoing"), but none is titled "Waffle House Prospectus" or "Waffle House Annual Report 1997."
The Waffle House is everywhere in the South. It has inspired country songs, comedy routines, loving editorials, a scene in the movie Tin Cup, even Web sites and Internet newsgroups that breathlessly post late-breaking developments. With more than 1,200 locations in 20 states, as far north as Ohio and as far west as Arizona, Waffle House is cherished by thousands of diners. Regular customers speak of its employees, its customs, and its food with near reverence. Touring musicians have been known to eat five meals a week there. And yet the Waffle House is so pervasive it's invisible. It doesn't advertise; it hides in plain sight. And yet, if every Waffle House is indeed the same, why do so many people have such specific memories about them?
To translate Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia into wafflecentric terms, the Waffle House is a mystery smothered, covered, chunked, and topped with an enigma. A search of the Nashville Public Library database turned up only a sketchy company profile, not a history. If the library's indices are to be believed, neither The New York Times, USA Today, nor The Wall Street Journal has ever used the word "waffle" in conjunction with the word "house"--this despite the fact that Standard & Poor's reports annual company revenues of $216 million. (At the going rate of $3.15 per waffle, that converts to roughly 68,571,428 in waffle currency.)
Any question about these shadowy media relations was settled by a quick call to Waffle House's central headquarters in Norcross, Ga. "We don't have media relations," said Chris Jacobson, Waffle House's vice president of marketing. "We don't give a lot of information out."
Take the Waffle House songs, for example. Tourists and kitsch aficionados love these twangy, sentimental odes to sweetheart waitresses and free grits, even though employees, as a rule, hate them. When I asked a night-shift employee how I could get a copy of the songs, he replied, "I'll break the jukebox open and give 'em to you."
And don't bother searching the ASCAP or BMI database for the composers of tunes such as "Special Lady at the Waffle House" and "Why Would You Eat Grits Anyplace Else?" Jacobson admits that the songs are written and recorded largely in Georgia, but the publishing rights are held in-house--which doesn't create much of a problem, since the songs are only played on Waffle House jukeboxes. What's more, the company refuses to give out names of songwriters or producers. In other words, if you want to hear Mary Welch Rogers' recording of "Life Is Like a Cup of Coffee," you'll have to slip into a booth and spend a few quarters.
According to the company's interstate location directory, the first Waffle House was opened on Labor Day 1955 by two neighbors in Avondale Estates, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. The directory doesn't identify the neighbors, but Jacobson hesitantly confirms that one was Joe M. Rogers Sr., who remains senior chairman of what is still a privately held company. (Rogers' son, Joe M. Rogers Jr., is president, and Mary Welch Rogers, vocalist and composer of "Waffle House Family," may be a relative also.)
A far better source of Waffle House poop is the World Wide Web, where a half-dozen unofficial Web sites pay homage to the "Awful Waffle." Much better than any company publication could, these sites convey the warmth, affection, and in some cases cultish devotion the Waffle House inspires in its regular patrons. (A sample from Kamran Sajadi's Waffle House Shrine: "I am in a cult at my school called the Waffle House Cult and we get together and worship that beautiful shrine of waffles and hashbrowns.") Some of these postings are ironic, in the same way that hipsters are ironic in proclaiming their overenthusiasm for, say, Mentos. The WaHo definitely falls into the so-square-it's-hip drawer of pop culture.
Nevertheless, the Waffle House Web sites serve up many juicy tidbits, many of them from former employees. In one posting, former WaHo staffer Jason Brewer describes a "Waffle House University" where management trainees are indoctrinated into "TWHW"--"The Waffle House Way," a company-wide corporate philosophy propagated through videos and brochures. Among TWHW commandments: Waitresses must wear a bra at all times, and all egg orders come with mandatory toast and grits. Other postings are devoted to the arcana that distinguish a WaHo regular from a mere drop-in. These can range from knowing the identity of Bert of "Bert's Chili" fame (Bert Thornton, Waffle House senior VP) to new developments on the hashbrown front. For about 15 years, hashbrowns have been cooked to order either "scattered" (loose), "smothered" (with onions), "covered" (with cheese), "chunked" (with ham), "topped" (with Bert's Chili), and "diced" (with tomatoes). To these the WaHo has added "peppered" (topped with green chilies) and "mushed" (layered with mushrooms). Neither of those options has made it to Nashville yet.
There's a good reason why the humble, low-tech Waffle House eats up so much cyberspace. It may not offer pizza, but otherwise the WaHo menu satisfies all the cravings of hacker cuisine. After all, we're talking about a restaurant that considers a sirloin steak "just right for the lighter appetite," "proudly serves only Real American Cheese," and features Walt's Steak Vegetable Soup and steamed hashbrowns in its "Light Corner."
But the impulse that fuels these Web sites is basically the same one that makes Waffle House an oasis for weary motorists and lonesome truckers who haven't seen their families in days. The information superhighway is even more alienating than a darkened interstate, and its passengers need brushes with fellow travelers all the more.
The acknowledged father of all chain restaurants was Frederick Harvey, a British immigrant who banked on the idea that travelers of the 1870s would demand variety in food, not in service. Harvey was smart enough to foresee the impact mass transportation would have on American culture. When he rode the rails out West, though, he was appalled by the grubby, unsanitary food offered to travelers.
Through a deal with the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railway line, Harvey started a chain of railroad-station restaurants that pioneered the concept of standardized service. At any remote outpost that bore the Harvey name, travelers in the woolly, uncivilized West could expect uncommon luxuries--among them cool filtered water, fresh fruit, and virtuous waitresses. Seventy-five cents brought entres ranging from sea turtle to fresh oysters, and the menu changed at every stop. Fred Harvey figured travelers wouldn't stand for finding the same dishes at every one of his restaurants.
Then again, Fred Harvey never met my parents. Driving through Missouri many years ago, my mother, my father, and I took an interstate exit in search of some early-evening grub. For me one of the thrills of highway travel is the chance of finding great food at some out-of-the-way hash joint. This time, however, I was stuck in the passenger's seat, and I could only point helplessly as my father drove past one alluring diner after another.
"I know I saw a Shoney's sign from the road," he said, peering into the twilight. Several miles later, as the Slim Jim sandwiches were set before us, I asked him why he'd traveled 400 miles to eat the same soup 'n' salad bar he could eat every day back home in Murfreesboro. "You always know what you're going to get," he responded. It was as if he were explaining algebra to a block of cheese.
At the time I didn't see the wisdom of my father's reasoning. I was 18 and desperate for change of any kind. The thought of bypassing the best homemade pie or the best corncakes in central Missouri for yet another trip to the steam table struck me as a sure sign of senility. But my father's response illustrates a basic truth about Americans, and America in general. We're willing to travel hundreds of miles away from home, so long as we can find the things we left behind. Our forefathers crossed oceans, conquered nations, and cut paths through brutal wilderness in order to replicate the customs and comforts they knew back home.
After World War I, with the rise of the interstate system and a culture obsessed with automobiles, the raison d'être of chain restaurants shifted from luxury to efficiency. The Howard Johnson's chain made a killing in the 1940s by purchasing sites next to interstate exits, allowing motorists to sweep right in for a plate of fried clams. What's more, mass production and shipping advances made it cheaper for restaurant chains to standardize menu items, restaurant booths, even the façades of the buildings. The White Castle chain built an empire on the notion that customers loved routine and hated surprises. Its founders carefully eradicated any trace of individuality from one burger-slinging barony to the next.
But the Waffle House remains unique among chain restaurants in that its franchises have somehow never lost their individuality. Maybe it has something to do with the layout. In most other restaurants, the kitchen is sealed off from the patrons. In those restaurants, there's a big difference in the demeanor of the front-counter folks, who serve the public, and the cooks in the back, who deal with the grease and the heat. Not so at the Waffle House, where orders are shouted above the murmur of the jukebox and the food is cooked in full view of the patrons at the counter. According to WaHo lore, waitresses must even stand on specific tiles when they deliver their orders to the cook, and some cooks won't acknowledge an order that comes from any other spot.
And yet the openness of the kitchen and the proximity of the staff to the customers adds to the homey informality of the place. At the Charlotte Pike Waffle House not too long ago, my waitress, Nancy, was taking special care of two fortyish-sounding women a few booths ahead of me. I couldn't see them, but I could hear their long story about somebody's father and somebody's keys disappearing at a Shoney's. Another night, I was in the always-jumping Stewart's Ferry Waffle House when a dozen skatepunks burst in the front door shouting "Lollapalooza!" and slapping each other high-fives. At each Waffle House, each group fit right in. At each Waffle House, the waitresses called me pet names--the super-friendly Melissa at Stewart's Ferry called me "sweetheart"--and poured me coffee until my eyes floated.
"We hear all the time, `You all treat me just like my wife,' " says Jean Ballentine, who signed on as a waitress 25 years ago at Waffle House's very first location in Nashville, on Donelson Pike. She's now office manager and corporate secretary for the Nashville general office. "We've got people known to our waitresses just by what they eat. I could look out the window when I was a waitress and say, `Oh, look, here comes `Over-Light Bacon.' "
At the Charlotte Pike WaHo, the relationship between customers and staff is close. Loyal customers mail postcards to manager Melissa Williams and bring her gifts from their vacations. On Christmas Day, when the Waffle House slings waffles into the wee hours of the morning, the restaurant's extended family piles the counter with gifts, pies, and cheese balls. The bearers could be students, singles, senior citizens, or working people stopping by after a late shift or on their way to their early-morning jobs. They share only the need for a little companionship and a last cup of coffee before they hit the road once more.
Last year, when Charlotte Pike employee Dawn Williams was getting married, she wanted to be surrounded by her friends and family. So she summoned a minister and a roomful of well-wishers, and the Charlotte Pike Waffle House was transformed for one day into a wedding chapel. A news crew photographed the event. Flowers decked the counter and the booths; regular customers stopped by with gifts and baked goods. Her fellow waitresses were her bridesmaids.
Melissa Williams will talk without hesitation about the wedding. But the minute the conversation steers toward the operation of the Waffle House itself--the process of dishing out hundreds of thousands of burgers, waffles, and hashbrowns without losing your mind--the stainless-steel curtain goes up again. She dismisses all questions with a single phrase: "It's all magic."
It was the summer of 1991, and I had just gotten off work late on a Friday night. Friday nights were always rough, but this one was worse than most. I was nervous about asking my girlfriend to marry me, my job was going nowhere, and I needed to leave my childhood home and begin life as an adult. I went to a midnight movie in Nashville, a ritual that always helped me forget my troubles. This time it didn't work. As I took the Murfreesboro exit off I-24, I saw the lights of the Waffle House and decided I could use some breakfast.
I grabbed a seat at the counter. The man sitting next to me was engrossed in a newspaper, and the sections he wasn't reading looked inviting. I cleared my throat and asked if I could borrow a section. He looked up, and I suddenly recognized him as one of my cousins. I hadn't seen him in years. His wife had died after a hellacious struggle with cancer, and after that he had disappeared from my life.
He greeted me warmly, handed me more of the paper than I'd asked for, and asked how my parents were doing. The waitress filled our coffee cups, and when my slice of pecan pie arrived, I asked what he'd been up to. "Oh, traveling," he said. He had taken a cruise around the world. He had visited Europe. He'd been in Tiananmen Square not long after the Chinese government had crushed the student rebellion. He told me he liked to travel because there wasn't much keeping him at home.
He spoke to me for at least an hour, and I was fascinated. Travel without end sounded great to me. "So what are you doing here at the Waffle House?" I asked, kidding him. "I don't know," he said, and he flashed one of the saddest smiles I'd ever seen. "I just didn't feel like going home yet."
All around us were truckers on dusk-to-dawn runs, college kids trading jokes with the waitress, and couples in the fake wood-grained booths silently munching bacon strips. At that moment, I understood the appeal of the Waffle House and all its embodiments at remote interstate exits all across the country. They allow us to stray as far from our homes as we can and yet never feel lost. The same bubble lights will always shine on solitary souls like me and my cousin, holding the void outside at bay. For us the Waffle House stops the world from spinning.
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