Food Issue - Around the clock at Waffle House
Smothered and covered on Cheshire Bridge RoadThursday October 21, 2010 04:00 am EDT
In the Waffle House parking lot, a young guy stands near the door smoking a cigarette. It's dark, either very early or very late depending on your perspective. The guy is wearing baggy clothes, his hair cut short. He seems agitated, his jaw clenched, the drags on his smoke made in short jerky movements, perhaps working out the lingering effects of whatever he got into last night.
"Welcome to Waffle House," comes the familiar call from many voices as I walk though the door.
I slide into the unyielding yellow seat of a booth. It's 5 a.m. and this will be my home for the next 22 hours.
The Waffle House on Cheshire Bridge Road opened in 1980. It is unit number 412, the restaurants being numbered in the order in which they opened. (There are now almost 1,600 locations in 25 states.) It sits perched just near the corner of Lavista Road, across the street from the Landmark Diner. At 30 years old, it's a reflection of the strange longevity of Cheshire Bridge Road businesses. The street, which runs one and a half miles from Piedmont Avenue just north of Midtown all the way up to the mouth of Buford Highway near Buckhead, has always fascinated me. Why do restaurants here survive for so long? The Colonnade, Nakato, Little Bangkok, the dueling red-sauce mainstays of Alfredo's and Nino's, all set among the sex shops and strip clubs, the liquor stores and thrift outlets, the low-rent motels and drag queen hangouts. Cheshire Bridge has a personality that veers wildly between depressing and lovable, shabby sleaze and vintage charm. As such, Waffle House fits right in.
As the sun begins to rise, the morning crew is just relieving the overnighters. In Waffle House parlance, this crew is known as first shift. This early, the waitresses do the cooking themselves. My first waitress is Melissa, a young woman pretty enough to make her hairnet look fly. I stall for a bit, saying I have someone who's meeting me, then order a pecan waffle and hash browns, smothered. I drink coffee and more coffee. The waitresses gossip at the end of the counter. Just before the sun rises, a young guy carrying groceries comes in to talk to one of the waitresses. As he leaves he calls to her, "I love you!"
"I love you," she calls back.
"I love you more," he says. From the parking lot, under the streetlight, he stops to turn and blow her kisses.
Waffle House was founded in 1955 by Joe Rodgers and Tom Forkner. Both men are still alive, now in their 90s. The company is different from other restaurant chains. It does no advertising. Its marketing department is set up as much to protect the brand as it is to push it, and the company is wary of media attention. And yet, Waffle House is ingrained in our city's cultural lexicon far more firmly than other local brands. From the scene in ATL in which R&B singer Monica is cast as a Waffle House waitress, to local teen rap group Travis Porter's viral video about drunkenly asking, "What comes on a sausage biscuit?" to countless other pop culture references, Waffle House is part of how we define ourselves.
The first Waffle House opened in Avondale Estates. That location is now the Waffle House museum and is open to the public once a month. The restaurant part of the museum is set up as it was in 1955, and a small building next door holds memorabilia. It's no World of Coke.
As a hometown brand, Waffle House is far more regional than Coca-Cola. Driving south from the Northeast, or east from the West, signs for Waffle House along the interstate let you know you're home. There's something about the interior of a Waffle House that's comfortingly bland, like the vibe of a crappy motel room. You could be anywhere. Those round light fixtures, the yellow and white tiles, the counter with its plastic-backed stools. Waffle House excels at making each location feel almost exactly like all the others. The food is what it is: Cheap. (Did you know you can add a second waffle to your order for 99 cents? Did you know that a grilled cheese costs $1.90?) But I don't think many people come to Waffle House for the food. I think they come for the comfort of sameness.
At around 8 a.m., a shift manager who's also the morning line cook comes on duty. Almost immediately, he and one of the waitresses get into a heated exchange. It's the woman whose boyfriend had just been blowing her kisses. They keep their voices down, low enough so I can't hear the substance of the argument. She disappears into the back. A while later she storms out into the dining room, saying, "You gonna fire me for that? Uh-uh. That ain't right." Eventually she returns to the back, and then a police officer shows up. Melissa, my waitress, smiles and acts as though nothing is going on. The fired waitress leaves, without needing the police escort it seems had been summoned. (I'm later informed that the firing didn't stick, but the waitress was reassigned to a different location.)
The breakfast rush is fast, and barely a rush at all. By now I have friends coming in to eat with me, a new person every hour or so, to make sure my presence as a paying customer doesn't require me to personally eat 23 waffles throughout the day. With each new order, Melissa calls out to the cook in Waffle House shorthand — "pull" which is the meat, "drop" which is the hash browns, and "mark" which is where the customer sits.
There are no paper tickets at Waffle House — everything is done verbally. The cooks have a system whereby they mark on the plate with ketchup packets and other condiments, a kind of visual code for each order. But at the height of the breakfast rush, with around 20 orders in front of him, it's hard to see how the cook is keeping everything straight, visual code or not. The tight economic movements and dance of the cook's hands over the griddle is stunningly impressive. I once heard a well-respected chef say of his hiring practices at his fine dining restaurant, "If a cook comes in with Waffle House on his resume, you hire that cook."
After 9:30 a.m., the restaurant empties again. Occasionally a hungover-looking couple comes in, eats quickly and leaves. It seems to be a popular spot for tough conversations, quietly desperate moments. A place you can come to feel anonymous, and therefore to have public moments that are basically private. Neutral ground.
At 11 a.m., a person comes in whose gender is hard to identify until Melissa and the other waitresses call out, "Hey, Donna! How are you today?" Donna has a magnificent mullet — very short and gelled on top, quite long in the back — and is wearing a white headband, like a 1980s tennis player. She's dressed in baggy light jeans pulled up high with a white T-shirt tucked in. She's as ageless as she is genderless. She could be 30 or 50, and she moves in slow motion, without any obvious signs of difficulty but more as if in some sort of trance.
She spends a long time in front of the jukebox, picking out songs with great thought and sadness on her face. Classic, heart-wrenching soul begins to play, changing the feel of the restaurant entirely. Donna takes a seat at the bar and listens intently as the songs progress from one heartbreak to another. When all her songs have played, about five or six of them, she gets up slowly and leaves. "OK, Donna," the waitresses call to her. "Have a good day at work!"
When Melissa gets off work, at 2 p.m. after the lunch rush, I have her tally my tickets for the last seven hours. Nine people fed at my table comes to only $50. I tip Melissa $20, which seems completely cheap for the amount of work she had done on my behalf. Just two nights ago, hadn't I tipped some waiter $30 for treating me with disdain for an hour and a half?
Second shift is the training shift, the first shift you work when you're hired. After Melissa's bright efficiency, my next waitress seems unsure. And though many people are still coming through to eat with me, and the restaurant is basically empty save a few very elderly customers who show up in the 1 to 4 p.m. hours, it's hard to get an order in or a refill of coffee during second shift.
My friends are showing up and staying much longer than they planned. They are falling into the Waffle House vortex. Perhaps I'm starting to get tired, or just a tad insane after sitting in one place for so long, but I feel as though space-time kind of doesn't exist inside the Waffle House. You sit and you talk and you drink coffee and the hours stretch on forever but also zip by quickly. All the conversations I've had throughout the day meld into one long conversation, one of scattered and smothered humor, musings on the Tao of Waffle House, and the ever-present surprise of how good those pecan waffles actually are.
I foolishly order a chicken salad in the middle of the afternoon. This is not the thing you should eat at Waffle House. The allure of lettuce seduces me, but as soon as the words leave my mouth and my waitress asks to make sure she heard me right, I realize my mistake. I barely touch the salad and it sits on the table for hours, until I am rescued at 9 p.m. by Ms. Shirley.
Though third shift starts at 9, Ms. Shirley gets to work early, sitting at the counter and stepping outside to smoke cigarettes. Like Donna she is ageless, and also kind of ethnically ambiguous — her skin is dark, but she could be any number of races. There's something stoutly maternal about her, something both soothing and scary. She's horrified by the state of my table, littered with glasses and plates and coffee cups from friends who left hours ago. There is a gruff no-nonsense affect to the way Ms. Shirley moves and acts, and she has a deep smoker's voice. She calls everyone "baby."
After she's cleaned off my table and taken the first order of the shift, Ms. Shirley confronts me. She is the first person throughout my 17-hour stay to have done so. "They say you've been here all day," she says.
Remarkably, I haven't really decided how to answer this question, or if I did have an answer I lost it somewhere along the way. "It's an experiment," I manage. My friend, who has not lost her mind or ability to make sense, does better.
"She just wanted to see what it would be like to sit here for a whole day. So she has her friends coming to keep her company."
"What do you get out of it?" Ms. Shirley demands.
"I don't know," I say. "Ask me tomorrow."
"How long have you worked here?" my friend asks.
"I've worked here for 10 years," Ms. Shirley says, "but I wouldn't sit at the Waffle House for 24 hours."
For the rest of the night, Ms. Shirley treats me with a kind of wary annoyance, the way you'd treat a crazy person who makes you a little uncomfortable. But she never stops calling me baby.
The third shift is the rock star shift, and at the Cheshire Bridge Waffle House, the rock stars are Ms. Shirley and her co-worker Jayme. Jayme is, like pretty much everything at this Waffle House, ambiguous. She is tall and slender with a man's body and the full makeup and coiffed hairdo of Whitney Houston. She wears the crispest shirt I've ever seen, the creases along the sleeves pressed into terse points.
Jayme has a lot of fans. At 10 p.m., a group of kids, two of them wrapped in fleece blankets, come in and hug Jayme at the door. Throughout the third shift, it's obvious that many customers come to this Waffle House for one reason: to see Jayme.
But my heart's with Ms. Shirley. She has style, in the way she calls orders in a throaty bark and in her blunt way of dealing with customers, and me in particular. In her 10 years at Waffle House, Ms. Shirley has worked at six locations, often brought in as the veteran third-shift server to pull together a staff that needs help.
My friends are now arriving post opera, post rock shows, post bar hopping. One of them feeds money into the jukebox and comes back to the table pleased with the song: "Why Would You Eat Your Grits Anywhere Else?"
Although the restaurants have always had jukeboxes, Waffle House has had its own music since 1984. The first Waffle House songs were sung by founder Rodgers' wife, Mary Welch Rogers, and there are a number of legends about the reasoning behind the advent of the company's original music. The official company line is that it just decided one day to begin producing its own music, and that the wife of the founder just happened to be the right person to do the singing. Waffle House is still producing music for its jukeboxes. On the website, you can see the latest development in Waffle House music: The Waffle House music video.
At 1 a.m., a group of guys comes in wearing leather vests and sparkly shirts at the same time as two women arrive, probably from a very different kind of club. The women are dressed in clubwear: silky pants, embellished shirts, knockoff Yves Saint Laurent bags. The men sit in a booth and the women at the counter, but they strike up a drunken conversation immediately.
The conversation starts out indecipherable and dirty, but quickly turns to the college aspirations of one of the girls. "You are going back to school, right?" the guy wearing a leather vest asks, his bare chest showing underneath. The girl, who has introduced herself as Alara, promises she will.
When the women get up to leave, there are hugs all around. Latia, the other woman, stands in front of the table of men and puts her hand on her heart. She says, with an expression of pure sincerity, "Oh my God, it was such a pleasure. Truly."
"I love the Waffle House!" one of the men exclaims. This sets them off telling Waffle House stories. Which is amazingly common during late night, I'm coming to find.
The table of absolutely sloshed kids who show up at 2 a.m. looking like they've come from a fraternity social, the girls spilling out of their prom-like dresses, the boys swaying in their seats, are all telling Waffle House stories. At 3 a.m., a group of high school kids arrives and sits in the booth in front of mine. These are serious metal-head kids, a few of the boys with long hair flowing down their black-clad backs.
Above the din of the post-club rush (and the restaurant is more full now at 3 a.m. than it has been at any other time that day) I hear one of the long-haired guys say, "Dude, this one time, at Waffle House ... ."
But the story is lost in the sounds of Ms. Shirley calling an order, and raucous laughter coming from Jayme's section across the restaurant. This is a relatively calm night for the Waffle House. It's a Thursday, a big club night, but even the drunkest patrons are behaving themselves. On weekend nights this restaurant has security, just in case something goes awry.
After the club rush dies down, I am done. The last of my friends has come and gone, and I still have to drive myself home. I take my last stack of checks to the register. "You leaving?" Ms. Shirley asks, looking unimpressed.
"Yeah, you finally did me in," I say. "But I did OK, right?"
"Yeah," she says. "You did fine, baby."