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.