Waffle House. Midnight. I was on the road. I pulled in for supper because everything else was closed and the coonhound in my passenger seat was hungry.
I was somewhere near central Alabama. A place where there are more log trucks per capita than anywhere else. Although that’s not saying much. In these parts, there aren’t many capita.
The joint was quiet. My dog waited in the truck while I got takeout.
There was a lone businessman sitting at the bar. He was scanning Waffle House’s updated, concise menu,
“This menu used to be bigger,” the man said irritably.
“Sorry,” said the waitress. “That’s our newer menu.”
“But, why is it so small?”
“You’ll have to ask management.”
The Waffle House menu has gotten considerably smaller, you might have noticed. Used to, the menu offered everything from tomato juice to khaki trousers. Now they just serve up their greatest hits.
Which is good with me. I love this institution. We ate Waffle House takeout at my wedding.
The man at the counter, however, is not so easily pleased. He is dressed in slacks and a necktie. His shoes look like they cost more than a Steinway concert grand. He is driving a Benz.
I was getting the impression that if his food didn’t come out dead letter perfect, he was going to paint the walls with it.
The waitress brought his plate. The man ate while playing on his phone. She kept his coffee level. His water glass never got below the rim.
But he still wasn’t happy. He asked for ranch dressing. She told him they don’t have ranch. They only have mayonnaise ever since the menu got smaller. The man was chapped when she delivered a handful of mayo packets as consolation.
“Gross,” he spat. “I’m not putting mayo on hashbrowns.”
“Sorry, sir. This is all we got.”
“You need to expand your menu.”
“I apologize, sir.”
He finished his meal. He paid his bill. He left without thanking anyone.
And as the man’s Benz wheeled out of the parking lot, I overheard the waitress say to the cook, “That guy didn’t tip me. Can you believe it?”
She seemed hurt by this. Not mad. Just hurt. A waitress lives and dies by tips. I’m not sure people realize that it is customers who pay the bulk of a waitress’s salary in America. Not the restaurant that employs her.
Even so, she put on a cheery face for yours truly.
“That man stiffed you?” I said.
She shrugged. “It happens.”
“Sometimes. I knew he wouldn’t tip.”
“Oh, I can pretty much look at someone and know who will tip good and who won’t.”
I took a sip of my coffee while I waited on my takeout. “How do you spot the bad tippers?”
She laughed. “Oh, I don’t want to stereotype.”
“Please,” I said. “Stereotype. I won’t tell anyone.”
She looked at me.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve found that guys who think they’re all that, just don’t tip. Usually they have nice cars and nice clothes. They look successful.
“You can do everything right. You can fill their coffee, give them extra stuff, be real sweet, but they’re not going to give you anything. Yesterday, a guy tipped me three cents. I actually cried. Three cents. That’s worse than nothing.”
“Who else tips bad?”
Shrug. “Sometimes, grumpy older customers. You know, the kind who always look mad? If they come into the restaurant and start complaining about every little thing, you know you’re not going to get tipped enough to buy gumballs.”
The cook entered the conversation. He was built like a linebacker.
“I started out as a server,” the cook said. “And us servers used to fight over who got to wait on the homeless looking guys because scraggly guys with beards always tip huge.”
The waitress nodded in agreement.
“Yep, there’s something about guys who look like they just rolled off a park bench. Scraggly beards, wrinkled clothes. Old guys who look like they don’t have pot to you-know-what in. They tip really good.”
“Who else tips generously?” I asked.
They thought about it.
“Single mothers,” the waitress said. “If there’s a mother in here, and she looks tired and worn out, she’s probably going to tip me 20 or 30 bucks. One time a single mother tipped me a hundred dollars.”
“And young people,” added the cook.
The waitress agrees. “Young people are really good about tipping. You’d think it’d be the opposite. But nope.
“We millennials get a bad name, but I promise you, a millennial will out-tip someone my dad’s age every time.”
“Every single time,” the cook said to underline her point.
“And truck drivers, too,” she said. “Truckers always tip good.”
“And anyone who is wearing muddy boots,” said the cook.
“People who clean hotel rooms,” she added. “If they’re wearing maid’s scrubs, they tip good.”
The cook laughed. “Seems like the worst tippers are always the ones who look like they have the most money.”
I was fascinated by our conversation. But alas, the road was calling. I had to be in Atlanta by tomorrow morning and I had miles to travel. I walked to the register to pay my bill.
“What about me?” I said, handing over my cash. “Do I look like a good tipper?”
She wrinkled her face like she was trying to see through me. She looked me over, head to heel. Then she smiled. “Well, your beard does look a little ratty.”
Man, this gal is good.
Betty F. - September 23, 2022 1:17 pm
I have seen that bad behavior so often, just as you describe. I hope there are enough of us kind souls to help take some of the sting away to folks just trying to do their jobs.
Summer - September 23, 2022 4:47 pm
Janice LeMaster - September 23, 2022 1:18 pm
Misha Benson - September 23, 2022 1:27 pm
Thank you for this column…I worked in restaurants most of my adult life and finally owned one. Servers aren’t paid enough to begin with and definitely count on their tips. This just goes to show “the rich get richer…”.
PSC - September 23, 2022 1:27 pm
Our son was on the wait staff of a fancy hotel-restaurant complex. He would tell the same stories. We were out together once when I pulled up the calculator on my phone. He asked “What are you doing?” I replied, “Figuring out 18% for the tip.” He taught me a great lesson that evening. “Dad, 20% is a lot easier to figure, it won’t be that much more for you, and it will sure make the server happy.” So 20% it is, unless we share a meal. Then I bump it up even more.
pk4hand - September 23, 2022 1:30 pm
The same observation was found by the author of Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon. Why do those with less tend to give the most? And now I can justify my long beard!
Connie - September 23, 2022 1:32 pm
Anyone who has ever been a server will be nodding and half crying, half laughing when they read this. They live on tips. And they do the job, regardless of knowing that some idiots won’t tip them, no matter how well they do that job. Thank you for this.
Larry Ratliff - September 23, 2022 1:32 pm
My tip doesn’t depend on food preparation, taste or decorum its all dependant on the waitresses attitude. I could have the worst meal in the world but as long as the waitress does his or her part to try and fix it…..I’m all good. The waitress doesn’t prepare the meal, all they have to do is keep my tea glass full and check on me from time to time and the tip is as good as theirs. I know 10% use to be the Golden rule back in the day (and 10% is good enough for God) but I usually stick to 15% nowadays with inflation and everything.
Darcy Schmidt - September 23, 2022 1:34 pm
This is so good!😉
Patricia Gibson - September 23, 2022 1:58 pm
This is so true! I volunteered many times at the Salvation Army Kettles at Christmas. It was always the people that seemed to have less that contributed. Amazing isn’t it. Remember the verse. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to get into heaven.
stephenpe - September 23, 2022 2:11 pm
love me some Awful House. My brother (RIP) lived in Atlanta and ate breakfast there all the time. I learned that title from him but its just the opposite for me. Always good food and good people there. Well. almost always. Sad angry people like the Benz driver will always be with us. btw do something about that “ratty beard” , Sean. 😉
crisTi - September 23, 2022 2:12 pm
I love someone who can take a joke on themselves! Good going!
Billy Moore - September 23, 2022 2:19 pm
Good article. I’ve become more conscious of tipping generously during these hard times. Waiters and waitresses need more money just like the rest of us. It is hard, honest work and deserves some rewards. We can also be polite and show respect. That part doesn’t even cost anything.
Chasity Davis Ritter - September 23, 2022 2:23 pm
Oh Sean I knew you would make it good before you even asked her for a little good stereotyping It’s true though. Be safe on the road. Your hauling very precious cargo. Love to you and Marigold.
alisonbaird765 - September 23, 2022 2:26 pm
If you love money, you worry about keeping every little bit you have. If you love people, you tip generously. Give and it will be given to you, pressed down and overflowing, it will be measured to you as you measure! Glad you love people, Sean!
Gigi - September 23, 2022 9:16 pm
@ Alison Baird ~ Well said & so true !!
Steve McCaleb - September 23, 2022 3:02 pm
People who constantly hunt something to be unhappy or dissatisfied with are the crabgrass upon the lawn of life. To paraphrase Blanche DuBois,”God bless those whose livelihood depends on the kindness of strangers”.
Nancy Briski - September 23, 2022 3:15 pm
Love Waffle House. We lived in Georgia for four years and seemed like there was a Waffle House at every intersection. Big Friday night dinner was to Waffle House, my kids loved it. I still have dreams about those pecan waffles, drooling as I write this. Moved back north, unfortunately Waffle Houses are few and far between. One of the many things I miss about the south. Maybe you could talk about southern accents sometime. I sure do miss those, so easy on the ears. One time I was in a restroom, in a stall and these was a southern woman talking to a friend. Couldn’t understand a darn thing she said, her accent was that strong. Might as well been a foreign language. I still love to hear a man from the south speak, gotta be one of the sexiest sounds going. Just saying or maybe it’s just me.
Summer - September 23, 2022 4:47 pm
Great story, but I think you got played. 🙂 Both our daughters were servers for years, and they’d have some different takes on most of these Waffle House stereotypes. They worked exclusively in fine dining and sports bars. Homeless-looking people were often the kindest customers but may or may not be good tippers. Most everyone else was a mixed bag. The loud drunks had the widest discrepancy. Depending on their financial means, young people were generally poor to zero tippers, as were most single women (moms or otherwise) – but only generally speaking. There were always pleasant surprises. Well-dressed gentlemen could go either way. In the early 2000s our eldest worked at a popular wings spot while attending one of our state’s iconic institutes of higher learning. One of the local university’s (former) head coaches came in often with his family. He and his wife were ALWAYS demanding, entitled jerks with children to match and were (shocker!) crummy tippers. At the same time, another (short-reigned) head coach who frequented their establishment was just the opposite. What he lacked in coaching prowess he more than made up for (among those who live for more than football) in gentlemanliness. Servers scrambled for his table. He and his wife were ALWAYS exceptionally kind, gracious and generous, and their kids were angels. Just to say every dining demographic has its jerks and jewels. Our girls cited elderly men – grumpy or otherwise – as both the best and worst of tippers, but if their wives were with them they’d usually fix it. Truckers were mostly good. Sadly, some of the rudest and chintziest were among the Sunday after-church crowd. But they used to tell us, hands down, the best tippers were those who 100% get it — i.e. other servers or people who used to be. Servers do what they do for lots of reasons, and around here, their base pay is about $2.13/hour. A server stuck with a couple of tables like Coach Blankety-Blank on a Friday night might work an exhausting 6-hour shift and end up with less than $15 to help offset college living expenses, contribute toward their kid’s braces, or keep the lights on. That’s why I suspect most mamas of (former) servers are good tippers, too. I start at 20% and go up from there. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of buffering to compensate for the jerks who insist they shouldn’t be expected to tip. From this former servers’ mama, thanks for being one of the good ones!
McDonald RN - September 23, 2022 5:08 pm
By gum the scene paired with the words you’ve construed nailed many of the references embraced in this photo series/book.
A Photographer Capturing the South From Waffle House Booths
hbryan21 - September 23, 2022 5:08 pm
Love the “Awful Waffle!” I even tipped the cook $10 once for “The Show” we had watching him find orders .Great Place.
Gloria Van Nostrand - September 23, 2022 5:16 pm
Too many “entitled”, uncaring others, bitter bones, don’t play by the lessons and examples set for us. Small, petty and vindictive. Alas.
Linda Moon - September 23, 2022 6:25 pm
There’s not much better than a road-trip stop at a Waffle House for a late night breakfast. We have a former waitress in our family who depended on tips to raise three children. She’s no longer a waitress and gives big tips because she knows how hard they work. And she’s kind. I’ll give a name to guys who don’t tip: Jerks!
Susie, as well - September 23, 2022 6:46 pm
I like Ranch on salad, but who would mess up a good hash brown by putting Ranch on it? I also tip 20% as it is easiest to figure.
Gigi - September 23, 2022 9:25 pm
Ranch on potatoes (baked, fried, hash browns, or French fries) is AMAZING!! A fine dining restaurant back home in KY actually serves potatoes with Ranch as an accompaniment.
Mary McNeil - September 23, 2022 6:47 pm
As I recall, the waitress in a Steinbeck novel referred to those kind of people as “shitheels.”
I ate at Waffle House the other day. In addition to the new menu, their prices have gone up. I’d like to think theygave their employees a raise too. But I still left a tip.
Carol Pilmer - September 23, 2022 8:12 pm
Politicians are trying to get minimum wage for all wait staff…can’t imagine what that will do to the menu prices.
Sheri K - September 23, 2022 9:27 pm
We hadn’t been in a Waffle House in decades until your recent posts talked about them and you planted a seed! While out shopping, we ran across one that looked pretty new. We could tell by the windows that the ac was working overtime but decided to stop. You’re right, the menu has definitely shrunk but that was our only complaint. Food was yummy and plentiful and our little waitress was super! We’ll be stopping back again next time we’re that direction. And yes, 20%.
Debbie - September 23, 2022 11:29 pm
And former waitresses! i can always tell if the waitress/waiter is trying and tip well. Man, I wish I knew where in Atlanta you and Marigold were headed to. Would have liked to have said hello to you both.
Lynn B - September 24, 2022 2:45 am
Bet she got a great tip!
Dee Thompson - September 24, 2022 3:03 am
My parents were huge fans of the Waffle House. They kept a booklet in the car listing all Waffle Houses everywhere. One time, the cook got mad and quit, just walked out. Within a few minutes, a car pulled up and two well-dressed men got out and took off their coats and ties and got to work. They apologized for the delay but Mom said they did a great job with all the orders. Waffle House trained their executives to do every job in every store. Great place. Love their cheese omelets as well as the waffles…
Jackie - September 28, 2022 11:24 am
My husbands boots are always muddy! He’s been a good tipper as long as I’ve known him, and that’s a long time. Once on a vacation at a register was a little sign that read, “good tippers make good lovers”, and ever since then he seems to be an even better tipper. 😆