waffle houseOften on my day off, before a morning motorcycle ride in the mountains, I treat myself to breakfast at a Southern American institution: Waffle House.

Waffle Houses are not luxurious. The box-like buildings are designed for cheerful efficiency, and cheerfully efficient they are. As soon as you walk through the door the staff call out a cheerful, “Good morning!” The pleasantries continue as you are seated and a drink is immediately placed before you. A moment later the waitress is ready to advise you or take your order. She’s well groomed, clean and friendly. She’s talkative without being a bore and easy-going without being slack.

The menu is also cheerful and efficient. The All Star Special is the best value. You get two eggs as you like them, grits (this is South Carolina) or hash browns (if you’re a Yankee), bacon or sausage, toast, coffee and a waffle, and the mug of coffee has no bottom.

I like to sit at the counter and watch the team at work. They are men and women, young, middle-aged and almost retired. They are African American, Hispanic, and white, and they are all working together as a team, joking and chatting. The waitresses shout out the orders in diner lingo, while the chefs are busy slapping bacon on the griddle, scrambling eggs, watching the hash browns, and flipping the sausages. One team member preps and finishes the plates, another is busy bussing tables, sweeping the floor and loading the dishwasher. Three girls are waiting tables. A manager circulates to talk to customers and keep an eye on the whole operation… cheerfully, efficiently and 24/7.

Unit_1_SepiaWaffle House is sixty years old this month. The first restaurant opened on Labor Day weekend in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Georgia. That restaurant was conceived and founded by Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner, who both continue to own a majority of the company. Rogers’s concept was to combine the speed of fast food with table service with around-the-clock availability. He told Forkner, “You build a restaurant, and I’ll show you how to run it.”

After opening a fourth restaurant in 1960, the company began franchising its restaurants and slowly grew to twenty-seven stores by the late 1960s. There are now over 2,000 Waffle Houses in twenty-five states, and as my local manager told me, “They keep building a new one every day!”

Writing about Southern culture Jim Ridley observes:

The Waffle House is everywhere in the South. It has inspired country songs, comedy routines, loving editorials, a scene in the movie Tin Cup, and even web sites and Internet newsgroups that breathlessly post late-breaking developments. With more than 1700 locations in 25 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. Yet the Waffle House is so pervasive, it is invisible. It does not advertise; it hides in plain sight.

What’s the real secret of Waffle House success? No doubt the usual American mix of customer service, good value, military precision, and entrepreneurial genius, but behind it all some truly American values are being lived out. Despite being a national chain, Waffle House manages to create a local feel. One morning over breakfast I found myself seated next to a local African-American pastor and we started swapping ministry stories about our flocks. Another morning I found my bill had been covered by a local Catholic businessman who gave me a cheerful (and efficient) wave as he downed his bacon, eggs, and coffee.

The local feel is created by loyal and local staff. Not only does the mix of sex, ages, and races reflect the best of America working together, but every time I’ve visited Waffle House I get the impression that the team really enjoys working at Waffle House. Employees report good benefits with health care and paid vacations, but there’s more to Waffle House success.

I’ve quizzed managers and discovered that many of them have worked at Waffle House for twenty years or more. Then I discovered one of the reasons for the cheerfulness of their hard work: employees are given the opportunity to purchase stock in Waffle House. While Forkner and Rogers continue to own majority, they’ve encouraged employees to share ownership through purchasing stocks.

slideshow_1503757_wafflehouse.0321_cAt Waffle House you don’t only get a slice of pie, you get a slice of American pie. A good company not only looks after ts customers, but it also invests in their workers. In this way, Waffle House is not only an American success story, it is also a great example Catholic social teaching in action. Catholic social teaching swings on the two hinges of subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that initiatives are taken and solutions are found at the most local level possible. Solidarity is the principle that we are not islands. We are “a continent, a part of the main.” We are family. We care for one another.

If these two principles were applied within families, within parishes, within dioceses, communities, corporations, and governments many of our social problems would resolve themselves. Put simply we should care for one another at the local level—the level of reality. We should, if you like, serve one another breakfast more often…

…and we should do so cheerfully and efficiently.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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15 replies to this post
  1. Rarely have I found such a blatant false dichotomy within these pages. There is no such thing as an either/or when it comes to grits and hash browns; it’s always a both/and proposition!

  2. Nice article, especially never having known the background of Waffle House. I’ve never eaten at a Waffle House but the next time I find myself on 75 heading south I will take the time to stop in for some waffles. We need to support good businesses like this.

  3. I love the Waffle House, especially their pecan waffles and hash browns with sausage gravy, yum!! Cheese grits are good, too.

  4. I think it is also Waffle House that has generators and a stripped down menu so that they can be up and running instantly during a disaster like a flood or tornado…

  5. May God bless Waffle House and may their business prosper. Waffle House saved my family’s bacon one horrible terrible no good very bad Christmas Day, when we were driving 6 hours trying to get home before the pipes burst … and WH was the only place we could find open to get food on the trip. As we entered, with toddlers and preschoolers in tow, the staff wished us “Merry Christmas” as though they really meant it. The food was good and plentiful and the little kids found something good to eat … other than the broken furnace stress, it was a great meal. I will always say a prayer for Waffle House.

  6. In 1978, two friends & I ate at the Annistan, Alabama Waffle House near Ft. McClellan. It was clear from our voices that we were ”Yankees.” Our waitress never spoke a word to us, just stood at our table & tapped her order tablet indicating we were to place our orders. Never smiled. Literally dropped the plates with our waffles on them from such a height that the waffles bounced off the plates! Dropped the syrup on the table in the same fashion. Needless to say, she did not get a tip. Delicious waffles, though!

  7. I can’t help but think about Jim Gaffigan’s side-splitting riffs on the Waffle House. I can’t do it justice…you will have to look it up.

    But be prepared to laugh until you are crying…..

  8. I ate my first grits at the age of 20 in basic training–at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. And we go to Waffle House especially for the hash browns.

    Grits ain’t just for Southerners, and hash browns ain’t just for Yankees.

  9. I so wish Waffle House would share with the North. C’mon, just one exit ramp in the Chicago area, pretty-please? Going South without hitting a Waffle House isn’t being in the South. Once on my way to Florida, I stopped for breakfast as dinner outside of Atlanta, and the manager apologized profusely for not being able to serve me grits since he did not perfect them to his standards, and gave me extra eggs in compensation. Southern love for grits, courtesy, and hospitality, all in one order.

  10. As “Nobody Important” pointed out, Waffle House is open on Christmas Day, and likely to be the *only* place you can get a meal on Christmas.

    We learned this back in 1993, when visiting our daughter and son-in-law. By the time we drove for three hours, none of us wanted to cook so we went looking for a place to eat. Yes, Waffle House was the only place open.

    As it turned out, Santa Claus was eating there, too, sitting at the counter in full regalia, including real white hair and beard.

    It made our day.

  11. I live in California. My Dad lived in Pennsacola and my brother in New Orleans. when I visited them one of the first places they took me was the Waffle House. Happy to see an article about their operation. The Waffle House is a happy place. Both my Dad and brother are gone now so the Waffle House has a special place in my memories. Alice S.

  12. This is how people in Southern California feel about In-n-Out Burger. Customer loyalty is legendary and it’s not uncommon to see 20 or more cars in the drive thru lane. And the employees seem to love working there.

  13. I would also add Chik Fil A as another business with great service and happy employees. Also, the first time you realize they’re closed on Sunday, it’s an annoyance. But then you think “Does every business have to be open on Sunday’s?”

  14. The biggest thing I miss from the 11 years I spent stationed in the south with the US Navy is Waffle House. There is nothing quite like a plate of scattered, smothered, chunked and covered hash browns. There is also nothing quite like their efficiency, their reasonable prices and their cleanliness. I live outside Detroit now and haven’t traveled into the south in over 20 years. I still miss Waffle House and wish they would creep up this way.

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