I’ll call the Waffle House waitress Thelma for the purposes of this column. Thelma is mid-thirties, pretty, wearing a camouflage ball cap, and the no-nonsense attitude all hall-of-fame waitresses wear. And she calls everyone sweetie. I love it when they do that.
I sat in a booth in an average Florida Panhandle Waffle House on a weekend. The joint was empty. The globe lights hung over the faux-wood-grain tables the same way they did during my boyhood, back when long lines of customers would stretch out the door on Saturday mornings.
Tonight, however, the place was empty.
Thelma handed me a menu. I was struck by the reduced selections on the new menu. Waffle House used to have a lengthy menu that read like the abridged version of “War and Peace.” But now the lineup is vastly limited.
I asked Thelma why.
“Well,” she explained. “We’re having food supply issues. These are hard times, sweetie.”
And I could tell this was true because half the restaurant was roped off. Some of the barstools had plastic bags over the backs to either encourage social distancing or to make things easier on the store’s two-person skeleton crew.
There were only three cars in the parking lot, counting mine.
“Why is it so dead?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Probably because we ain’t got many employees no more.”
Shrug. “Hard times.”
Even so, amidst hard times this Waffle House hasn’t lost its charm. The place is still Americana on a stick. Ice cold AC, jukebox in the corner playing Tammy and George, chocolate milk thick enough to pass for Georgia mud.
Thelma brought my coffee.
“Things have been rough,” she went on. “Used to, we had plenty’a staff, but now, well… Now it’s mostly just me and Ben working.”
She nodded toward Ben. Ben was tall with mahogany skin and shoulders like a defensive lineman.
I asked how long he’s been working behind a griddle.
Ben laughed. “Shoot, man. Long time. I was a mechanic ‘fore I came here. Used to work on cars, but I got tired’a always busting my knuckles.”
He showed me the scars on his knucks to drive his point home.
“I love working here,” he added. “Always did like to cook.”
The American emblem that is Waffle House came against difficult times last year. And in many locations, these trying times still persist. Yesterday, for example, there were hundreds of flyers on mailboxes near my home, all advertising that Waffle House was now hiring.
I’ve never seen Waffle House do much advertising for anything. The didn’t need to. Advertising for Waffle House would’ve been like running a newspaper ad for the Statue of Liberty.
It just goes to show you, this is a different world.
During the worst of the pandemic last year, the company was forced to reduce hours for its workforce and to shelf many managers and corporate staff members. And they cut pay, too.
But here’s the mom-and-pop-shop beauty of Waffle House during the pandemic. Word on the street is that senior team members took the first and biggest financial hits. CEO Walt Ehmer announced a fifty percent pay cut. The Rogers family, which owns the chain, said they would take no compensation. Now that’s class.
And to think my old boss wouldn’t even spring for breakfast doughnuts in the break room.
So I can’t stand to see one of my favorite American benchmarks suffer. I cannot tell you how many of my life’s major events have included a visit to Waffle House to ceremonialize or celebrate.
I have frequented this timeless eatery after thousands of Little League games. And during my not-so affluent childhood, my family sometimes ate at Waffle House for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We even ate here after my father’s funeral.
I have visited Waffle House during every major hurricane evacuation—they are the only place that stays open on the Gulf Coast.
Once, at the ripe age of sixteen, I took Vanessa Spurton here on a date. She seemed disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot. It was our first and last evening together. The chili was exquisite.
And just a few weeks ago, only hours after my mother-in-law passed away under hospice care, my wife and I sat in the frigid AC of our local Waffle House, grieving over supper.
It’s hard to believe this marvelous institution is enduring shortages while trendy coffee franchises with ten-dollar cups have drive-thru lanes full of Land Rovers. It just ain’t right.
When Thelma placed a plate in front of me, it was steaming. The eggs over medium were cooked just right—the yolk should never run, it should merely crawl.
And as I ate, Thelma tore my bill from her notepad and placed it face down.
She said, “If you know anyone who needs a job, tell’em to check out their local Waffle House, we could sure use’em. And, hey, come back to visit us sometime, sweetie. Ben and I get lonely on slow nights.”
Consider it done, Thelma.
Keith Turk - August 29, 2021 7:47 am
Had a double order of hash browns all the way as a sleeping pill many many times on the road as a traveling salesman. Love me some Waffle House
Leigh Amiot - August 29, 2021 7:48 am
“Our” Waffle House was about full yesterday. Hadn’t been to one since the pandemic was declared, and I, too, noticed the reduced menu offerings plus the plexiglass shields suspended from chains between each booth. “Tee” kept our coffee mugs filled and was careful to ensure I got decaf instead of regular. Used to eat here about once every couple of weeks, sit on the stools and get dinner and a show, often learned of plans the employees had for their next move in life and wished them success in their endeavors. This pandemic has surely interrupted the customer supply, too, but it was good to get out and see other people even if it presently is a risky thing to do.
Lynn - August 29, 2021 8:51 am
I grew up in Georgia, so of course Waffle House has always been in my life. But we’ve lived in Hong Kong for nearly 42 years now. Every time we visit the States, Waffle House is a main feature in our travels. Our sons learned to love Waffle House early in life. So much so, that I have been forced to learn to cook hash browns Waffle House style. Now I can scatter ’em, cap ’em, cover ’em and all the rest with any Waffle House cook around! I hope and pray Waffle House survives this pandemic madness and are going strong by the time we’re able to get back to Georgia. And Florida. And Alabama. And Tennessee. All all the other places we have to visit when we’re back.
Suzi - August 29, 2021 10:40 am
Haven’t eaten at a Waffle House in almost 2 years. A favorite for my husband and me before our monthly trek to Sam’s. He always wanted the booth by the big window looking out over the parking lot. I preferred a booth snugged in the back so I could watch the amazing action at the grill and watch the smooth dance of cook and servers.
After the death of my husband I had no interest or need or heart to return-until I read your post today.
I think it’s time to return, hope our favorite waitress is there and hope the booth by the big window is available.
Te - August 29, 2021 10:52 am
You’re right, Waffle House is an icon of Americana, at least for me during the 60s. After partying till wee hours, it was the place to go, and we were a quietly boisterous tableful. I met my ex in a Waffle House in my late 40s after a night of “cattin'” around in Savannah. A girlfriend and I were waiting for a table on a Sunday morning. She said, “I’d give anything for a cup of coffee. See those four guys? They’ll buy us a cup.” She asked, they invited us to join them, and the rest is 15 years of history. So, yeah, I have a fond spot for the place.
Barb - August 29, 2021 11:00 am
Best advertisement going! Thelma never imagined the extent of her request, Sweetie.
Linda clifton - August 29, 2021 11:35 am
We haven’t been to Waffle House since the pandemic! I miss all that we use to do & now with the Delta it’s worse. I grieve for the workers & the loss of life as we knew it. I try to keep positive but it’s hard & I’m depressed a lot. I’m 72 & this isn’t what I thought my last part of life would look like. Don’t know what’s in store but I’m hoping for the best.
Thanks for the workers at there who risk their lives for us. To keep this country going! I’m in awe of you & so grateful!
Jeanne - August 29, 2021 11:45 am
I live in New York City now, not a waffle house to be seen, but my teen years in Texas had many very important events occur at a Waffle House. Those events always involved good looking boys who took me there on dates. How I loved it.
mccutchen52 - August 29, 2021 12:01 pm
Hash browns, somthered, covered and chunked. eggs over medium with bacon and a waffle. The breakfast of Champions.
Tammy S. - August 29, 2021 12:10 pm
💛🖤 Love Waffle 🧇 House! We took our grandson not too long ago. We have two in town. A new one and the one that’s been here forever. It sits right across from another of our favorite spots, Cracker Barrel! So many times when we would head to CB and it would be packed, we would walk across to WH and be thankful we did. Pecan waffles, loaded hash browns are my husbands favorite. I love some scrambled eggs with grits and one pancake. It’s not just the consistently, good food, the friendly service, the entertainment of either staff or even customers, or both but it’s an American south tradition. Hoping this is one tradition that stays around, even when this pandemic dies down and loses it’s grip on us all.
Laura W - August 29, 2021 12:14 pm
Can’t recall the comedian, but someone referred to Waffle House as the “bright yellow beacon of hope” for those midnight road trips.
Cheryl Andrews - August 29, 2021 12:34 pm
My husband and I eat at Waffle House every Sunday after church. We’ve gotten to known the employees well and we enjoy eaten there. The restaurant has begun returning back to “normal”. Thanks for writing about this icon!
Lyla Springfield - August 29, 2021 12:36 pm
Please, y’all stay safe!!!
Dean - August 29, 2021 12:55 pm
Good column as always. So sad people just don’t want to work anymore but if they can not work and live on the government why work?
Ann - August 29, 2021 5:43 pm
So very true
mrkenneth42 - August 29, 2021 6:10 pm
Trish Ezell - August 29, 2021 1:07 pm
Waffle House hold lots of memories for me, too. Lots of talk over coffee before the Hubs and I would open our printing company doors for the day. We were regulars at one particular Waffle House. When we would walk in the door, our coffee would be on the table and our order would already be on the way to being ready; one dark waffle, divorced, one bacon, one sausage. Perfection! Then, in 2001, my sweet Mother passed away. My sister and I were at the hospital when it happened. It was crushing. After everything was taken care of we left, drove straight to the Waffle House and cried over our coffee and waffles. So many memories. Thank you for sharing your and reminding me of mine.
James Clark - August 29, 2021 1:40 pm
Thank you. I always enjoy your stories because I am reminded of a similar experience in my own life. Reading about Waffle House this is especially true. It makes me kind of sad to think of all the young people who will never utter the phrase Smothered, Covered, and Capped.
Gayle Wilson - August 29, 2021 1:40 pm
Thank you for the good word for Waffle House and all the small institutions that are short on supplies and workers. My husband stopped to get lunch at a sandwich shop the other day and they only had two meats and one cheese. When he asked why, she said nobody wants to drive out to the middle of nowhere to deliver, when they do have the supplies to deliver.
Rich - August 29, 2021 1:44 pm
My son, an almost 30-year veteran manager with Waffle House, has endured labor shortages, food shortages and COVID but never closed his doors. Today he is back at work after being quarantined for a positive COVID test but has only two people that showed up for work. He attributes it to unemployment monies even though he can show his employees that that will make more money working that sitting on their a$$ at home.
Southern Girl - August 29, 2021 1:49 pm
Tattors scattered, smothered, and covered – eggs over easy – bacon crispy – waffle drenched in real butter and syrup (or honey) – the best meal ever!
Robyn - August 29, 2021 1:54 pm
I will start frequenting my local Waffle House. ❤️ Ya Sean!
beachdreamer1 - August 29, 2021 2:07 pm
Sean, you have a way of hitting at the heart of us average Americans. I’m a native Atlantan and have always been a fan of Waffle House! Thru thick and thin, as one commenter says, that yellow beacon of Hope has been a light in the darkness. The one I frequent most now was torn down….was so afraid something else was replacing it…but lo and behold! A brand new WH rose from the rubble! One problem for a while, the late afternoon shift was closed due to lack of employees. But thankfully on my last visit, the doors were back open 24/7🤗.
God bless those who keep getting up and going to work, who still love this country, who pray every day and appreciate the freedoms we enjoy. Like having an urge anytime of day or night for a bowl of grits swimming in butter, or a toasty waffle with a side of bacon, and knowing that close by that yellow light is still on. God bless you and God bless America!!🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
Karen Snyder - August 29, 2021 2:27 pm
I hope this piece of Americana manages to hold fast and bounce back. Most of us just aren’t cut out for the high-falutin’ “ten-dollar cup” no matter what the ads suggest we should believe. I’ve been back home in Indiana for a number of years, but I fondly recall a few long ago Waffle House meals. Thanks for a sweet read this morning.
Jan Hilton - August 29, 2021 2:33 pm
Phoenix, Arizona; January 2011. After attending the National Championship game between Auburn and Oregon, I and three of my friends were starving. Every restaurant we passed as we made our way back to our temporary residence was closed. We finally saw the Waffle House sign and were thrilled. Finally we could eat. Imagine our surprise when we walked in and the place was full of Auburn fans (with a scattering of Oregon folks). We were a thousand + miles away from home, but it was exactly like being in the Waffle House in Auburn after any other football game.
Joe - August 29, 2021 2:57 pm
Love Waffle House. Favorite waitress been there 21 years. Many great meals with the Grands.
Patricia Gibson - August 29, 2021 4:01 pm
Love the Waffle House!!
Bill Harris - August 29, 2021 4:31 pm
Thank you Sean.
Linda Moon - August 29, 2021 4:43 pm
When I saw the title, I thought of my home-made blueberry buckwheat waffles I make when cool Fall weather arrives. You’re invited to my house for some, sweetie. But then, I read heresy about an abridged version of “War and Peace” and had to collect myself. Your love for non-trendy local eateries is shared with me. But abridging Tolstoy just ain’t right!
Dianne - August 29, 2021 5:07 pm
The last breakfast my husband ate before he died was at his favorite breakfast restaurant, Waffle House, and The All Star Breakfast. Your column today makes me want to go and have that same breakfast. Thank you for the reminder!
giff ormes - August 29, 2021 5:16 pm
I will never forget .. I was the Disaster Preparedness Officer for the Navy Seabee base in Gulfport, MS, and we were hunkered down in our control center for a hurricane, when the Captain (Base Commanding Officer) came in and bellowed. “Can anybody tell me why I can’t get the troops moving because of this (blankety blank) storm and I passed two open Waffle Houses on the way here that were packed?” Gotta love them Waffle Houses!!! Caused me an immense amount of grief that day .. LOL
Ann - August 29, 2021 5:42 pm
“MORNIN’” is one of our favorite travel greetings…..Waffle House have the friendliest workers and consistently good food….I hope they can’t hang in there.
Suellen - August 29, 2021 6:03 pm
My husband and I headed to the local Waffle House after bible study one day. We poked our head in the door and got a shock. As you said, half the booths were taped off and the others that weren’t occupied were full of dishes. A girl hollered that it would probably be 45 minutes to get a table. It was only her and and one guy behind the grill. She said they can’t get any help and she can’t even find time to clean the tables. If I didn’t have my husband along I probably would have cleaned off tables for her.
Debbie g - August 29, 2021 7:48 pm
Love Waffle House and the always nice people who work there !!! Love to all
KB Lambert - August 29, 2021 8:23 pm
Sean, I hope you’re a fan of David Wilcox and he of you! He sings a delightful song about the Waffle House.
Karen - August 29, 2021 9:28 pm
Waffle House employees are caring people.
Scubadad - August 29, 2021 9:45 pm
i went to waffle house after i had made all the arrangements for my mother after she passed away.
Nancy M - August 29, 2021 10:48 pm
We’re in Waffle House right now waiting for our traditional Sunday evening meal – the All Star Special that we split. I get the waffle and one slice of extra crisp bacon, and he gets eggs scrambled with cheese, and sliced tomatoes. Decaf coffee for both of us.
It’s a new one, in Montgomery, with the words “Waffle House” stamped in the center of the waffle!
Dottie Doherty - August 30, 2021 12:34 am
We have lots of family memories of Waffle House too. Some of us still keep our Christmas Eve tradition after the late service at church and family who don’t have Waffle House near them are excited to get to go even if it means going 30 min out of the way to find one. My grandkids and I ride to our local WH when they are here foe camp Grandmom.
Lois Goland - August 30, 2021 6:50 am
On my family’s trips south when I was a kid we would stop at Waffle House… I always loved those stops!!
Jonathan - August 30, 2021 1:52 pm
God Bless Waffle House and all the fine, wonderful folks at the “yellow beacon of Hope!”
Robert L Chiles - August 30, 2021 4:03 pm
Every Thursday morning during my daughter’s junior and senior year we would share breakfast at the WH. Scattered, covered, capped and capped. Great memories. Now she’s 34.
Bert Thornton - August 30, 2021 8:29 pm
You mailed it, Sean. And thanks for liking the chili. Bert
Michael Reese - September 2, 2021 12:46 am
Sean??? Please promise me that you are going to start writing your GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL!??
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - September 3, 2021 2:36 pm