I love Waffle House. This October Break, I returned to my local Waffle House in Florence, SC, and it was a homecoming. As soon as my brother and I walked in, we were greeted by one of our regular waitresses with a large smile on her face. “Hey boys! Welcome back! How’s college going, are y’all on break or something?” We each ordered a coffee and water, our usual. My brother and I locked eyes with each other and smiled, silently exchanging a mutual understanding: We were home.
I should explain Waffle House’s legacy to those unfamiliar with the chain. According to the company website, Waffle House was founded in 1955, and now has over 1900 stores across 25 states, mostly in the South. The nearest Waffle House to Vassar is a 140-mile trek, just outside of Allentown, PA. There are 171 Waffle Houses in South Carolina, the fourth-most of any state. My local Waffle House is franchise #1840 (I’ve known this by heart for four years since the number is posted on the back wall of each franchise!) off exit 170 of I-95. The news knows this exit for recently becoming home to the northernmost Buc-ee’s (a famous Texan gas station) on the East Coast—I know it for my Waffle House. Florence is approximately halfway between New York City and Miami, so it’s a stopping point for drivers quite frequently.
However, my experience is as a long-time regular. I’ve lived in Florence my whole life, my grandmother lives a few houses down the road and the hospital I was born in is 20 minutes away from my house. #1840 is closer. I have relationships with the staff there. A man, named Kirk, worked the grill for a lot of my early life, and it was sad to see him move to a different job. Danielle is a server there, and my family has known her through the birth of two kids; we bought a gift for her second baby shower. The name of a server we had most recently slips my mind, but I know her and her face, just as well as she knows mine.
And I’m not the only one who sees Waffle Houses as the community’s cornerstone. FEMA utilizes a system deemed the “Waffle House Index” to determine how harshly a city or area has been hit by a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Waffle Houses, famous for being open 24/7 and never locking up, very rarely close. So if the Waffle House in an area closes, it’s a sign that an area is devastated. If Waffle House is on a limited menu, an area still needs help but not to the same degree. They are the lifeblood of their towns to the point that our very government uses them to check for a pulse.
As I ramble on about how important Waffle House is to me and its larger cultural effect, I must mention the food. My order is as follows: “I’d like an All-Star Special with a regular waffle, white toast, bacon, eggs scrambled well, large hashbrowns, scattered, smothered and a coffee.” All this is $8.50 including tax, with a small upcharge for large hashbrowns.
Speaking of hashbrowns, I ought to explain the hashbrown lingo. “Scattered” and “smothered” stand for “loose” and “with onions mixed in.” If you don’t want your hashbrowns loose, you would say “in the ring.” If you want cheese, you say “covered,” for ham you say “chunked,” for mushrooms you say “capped.” With many other combinations, there are 768 different possible hashbrown orders. My meal is big, heavy and cholesterol-intensive, but boy howdy it’s delicious.
Whenever they’re not cooking, they’re cleaning. I know that some people view Waffle House as unsanitary, and the only reason one would think that is because, unlike most restaurants, you can actually see the kitchen. If you look closer, though, there’s little grime to be found. My dad has worked in the restaurant business, and trust me, you don’t want to see the kitchen of an Olive Garden or a Chili’s. At Waffle House, the kitchen is spick and span, and they keep it that way.
And the service is incredible. The company notably refers to their staff on name tags as “associates” and “salespeople” as opposed to “waiters” and “waitresses,” as well as “grill operator” instead of cook. Watching the staff do their work is like watching a symphony. The associates call out the orders in lingo and the grill operators start setting plates, using small amounts of ingredients as code for what each portion of the plate is. A salesperson not taking orders is mopping the floor or washing dishes. Waffle batter goes in the press, bacon and hashbrowns start sizzling, eggs go in the pan and my food comes in under seven minutes. All the while, my coffee cup never goes below half full. They say “Good Food Fast,” and they mean it.
If you aren’t already a fan, give Waffle House a chance. It’s a wonderful restaurant with good comfort food, and it’s consistent. Whether it’s your local franchise or you’re merely a vagabond passing through the area, it’s worth a stop. And if you ever find yourself going through South Carolina on I-95, pay dear old #1840 a visit.