Waffle House: Sameness, Diversity and Southern Image

A Waffle House in Columbus, Ohio (Photo By Andrew Mitchel)

Andrew Mitchel and Laurie K. Smith
The Ohio State University

Waffle House occupies a distinct space in the American culinary imaginary. Founded in 1955 in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, this popular Southern-based eatery is omnipresent, familiar and comfortable. It is an every-place with the same menu, ambience and layout at all its locations. Anthony Bourdain marvels at the very concept of the restaurant and mentions that it is both confusing and enticing for a newcomer. Waffle House invites in all customers no matter their background: the eatery meets you where you are and is a cultural touchstone which captures the dynamics of race, class and Southern image. This, however, brings with it negative scrutiny of the establishment and the diverse identities of employees and customers alike.

Waffle House is a liminal space; this concept, arising from the Latin limen, or threshold, is the process of passing from one state of being to another. It is shown through rites of passage but also in far more mundane activities like annual holiday celebrations (Turner 1983). At Waffle House, all are brought together in their desire for tasty and affordable fare in a sit-down environment. A customer can sit down at any Waffle House and have an identical experience. You will receive the same greeting, be asked the same questions as you order and order using the same lingo not heard anywhere else. The consumers are also in on the slang used in the restaurant: they must know their specific hash brown order, i.e., if they want them smothered, covered, peppered, and so on.

Everything at Waffle House is cooked to order, a pledge strengthened by the eatery’s use of fresh ingredients. The kitchen is also out in the open for all to see, recasting freshness beyond its use to solely describe foods thought of as healthy. This shows fast food joints can be innovators of certain versions of freshness. Waffle House also contains a timeless and nostalgic aura. It is as though it is still the 1950s boom time in the United States and the customer is in a Southern diner in its ideal form, which contributes to its liminal nature and forms yet another reason why the restaurant has obtained its position in the American psyche.

Waffle House relies on a nationwide distribution network of food producers that it advertises on its menu as “America’s best brands” to encourage trust and consumption of these products. These include Sara Lee bread, Heinz ketchup and spreads, Tabasco hot sauce and Coca-Cola soda/drink products. The majority of these advertised brands were founded and/or are headquartered in the South. Embedded in this is a clear irony: these trusted brands cast as local favorites are in truth major players in the American industrialized food system. This reflects an outmoded ideology of trust wherein the industrial and mass-produced was novel and valued over the local, seasonal and artisanal.

Trustworthy Brands or Multi-National Corporations? (Photo by Andrew Mitchel)

Waffle House is relied upon by diners but also by meteorologists: the Waffle House index is a shorthand used to ascertain the effect of hurricanes and other natural disasters. This index first looks at localized destruction (whether individual store locations are closed or not) and then zooms out to look at regional impacts (if locations have a limited menu caused by disrupted distribution chains). Waffle House is already known for the efficient service in the communities it serves: with regard to the index, the eatery becomes more reliable than institutional authorities for determining the severity of a natural disaster.

Waffle House is widely cherished for its iconic menu and idyllic environs, however criticisms are levied about how greasy and fattening food served therein is, as well as the wild and crazy happenings at the eatery apparently caused by disheveled employees and a low-class clientele. These classifications are cherry-picked generalizations: one must consider the precarity of customers and workers in these spaces, especially when this eatery is typically the only space to eat late at night in many rural and isolated communities. The race and class levels of these individuals are put under the microscope, and when these incidents are shared on social media, they come to stand in for broader ideations of an unruly Southern way of being.

Racialization of people of color, the presence of Waffle Houses in rural and low-income communities across the Southern United States and their 24-hour nature lead to this negative characterization which many, like this Reddit commenter, dispute. Media outlets exploit Waffle House for clickbait articles, showcasing strange and violent things that happen therein and state these “weird” things could only occur at Waffle House. A Waffle House spokesperson put it best in the New York Times: “It’s not that more of these stories happen at Waffle Houses. It’s just getting more attention when it happens at a Waffle House.” This trope is now a self-fulfilling prophecy: outlets expect these events to occur, when they do, they are seized upon as unique to Waffle House.

One observable factor unique to Waffle House is its employment structure. There are only three positions at Waffle House: manager, cook, and salesperson. All cooks and salespeople in a region are trained for four days in the same regional school, a restaurant separate from where they will work (Personal Communication, AW, 9/28/22). Managers and cooks earn a base salary with added bonuses based on sales, with cooks making upwards of $58,000 a year. Because Waffle House does not have bussers, servers, or hosts, sales members retain 100% of their tips. This also means that bussing and hosting form added responsibilities for the servers, making Waffle House a physically demanding job. The eatery balances this out by structuring spaces to be smaller, with the majority of tables accessible from behind the counter. Since orders are called out instead of entered into a system, food is made-to-order almost immediately, and payments are made at the counter. Despite some customers feeling Waffle House tends to be understaffed, this efficient system means turnover times on tables average about 20 minutes. This is positive for customers and employees: not only does it increase the number of sales and tips for employees during a shift, it makes Waffle House a fast and efficient dining experience open at all hours. This, along with paid time off, healthcare, and maternity leave is especially necessary for those for whom Waffle House is one of just a few employment options.

Waffle House is one of very few places in the US willing to hire ex-convicts. An individual qualifies for hiring if they have not committed a felony in the past five years (Personal Communication, AW, 9/28/22). The company values and focuses on the ability and initiative of an individual to complete their job rather than on their appearance, background, and criminal history. Excellent employees come to be called rockstars when they achieve a high enough level of internal acclaim. Waffle House benefits by providing people with what is thought of as a particularly American value at the core of our national ideology: a second chance. This creates an accepting space for employees to be as they are and face limited stigma, one where they are not required to conceal tattoos or vernacular English. This is an aspect of the restaurant which extends to the customers as well. In this refusal of a strict and pristine image, a new image of acceptance and honesty is developed. This is as consistent in all Waffle House locations as the menu, ambience and uniforms. This aura of conviviality endows Waffle House with a certain mystique that invites acclaim but also ridicule by those who do not understand why this individuality is important and cherished by communities across the South.

Another potential reason for the complex reputation of Waffle House is the open structure of the restaurant’s space. Allowing customers to watch their meal being cooked in front of them puts Waffle House employees in a vulnerable position. When you order your meal, you are able to witness as the server shouts it out to the cook. Then, you see the cook take a scoop out of the large container of margarine and begin cooking your eggs. Waffle makers are crusted with dough and food items litter the kitchen floor. While nothing about these conditions is particularly unique, Waffle House has removed the barrier that exists in other establishments between the food before and during its preparation and the ready-to-eat final product. It creates a window into the specific functioning of the restaurant, exposing aspects about nutrition and cleanliness typically kept secret. This allows for scrutiny and criticism of the restaurant, its food, and, by extension, its employees.There is likely little nutritional difference between the food here and at any other American diner, but seeing it may lead many consumers to think of it more negatively and as less healthy. Consternation comes from the blaming of employees for these conditions when they are in fact structural in nature and more commonplace than customers might think.

This is directly connected to negative commentary hurled at Waffle House employees. In any restaurant, employees get into fights and arguments behind the kitchen doors; however, at Waffle House, a dispute like a mishandled order is hashed out in front of customers. This explains the various viral videos of Waffle House employees fighting. Since Waffle House advertising is non-existent, videos like these will dominate what is disseminated about the eatery, creating a discourse and associated memes on social media.

As Waffle House has consistently served food typical of American diners and been a place for people with difficult pasts to earn a solid income across the South, this vulnerability and scrutiny reflects back onto the people who rely on the establishment for either inexpensive meals or a livable wage. For customers, Waffle House provides exposure to both racial and economic diversity. Those from the South or low-income backgrounds view Waffle House as an unapologetic environment where they can be themselves. With its origins and focus on the South, it also becomes closely associated as a cultural representation for Southerners writ large. This makes it a Southern icon and a proxy for life where one can order hashbrowns, grits and waffles at any time of day in any small town or big city in the region. Unfortunately, this image also allows for ridicule, as some look down upon the diversity welcomed in this space. By serving this type of food, representing economic and racial diversity, and giving people a second chance, each Waffle House is a true embodiment of the values of the South. What makes Waffle House distinct is that, despite it being a liminal space where all are just passing through for a quick, cheap meal, it welcomes all. The eatery also illustrates the universal struggles of its consumers and staff, and rehumanizes all as equals in this eatery.

We would like to thank the Waffle House employee, who will remain anonymous, that allowed us to conduct an interview and assist in the information collection for this piece.

Bibliography

Turner, Victor. “Carnival in Rio: Dionysian drama in an industrializing society.” in The celebration of society: perspectives on contemporary cultural performance, ed. Frank E. Manning: 103-124. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

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