ALWAYS OPEN- When life feels out of control, the Waffle House is a center for consistency. Photo by Jesse Brooks.
By Jesse Brooks
Last week, after a couple of days of dreary weather, I was not feeling at my best mentally, physically and emotionally. Hours past a period of procrastination, I eventually forced myself to leave my home for a cure.
I went to my nearest Waffle House.
If you are a resident of the The South, you are more than likely familiar with the yellow roadside glow radiating from the signs of a diner that promises to always keep their lights on. If you’re planning a visit and you’ve missed your exit, don’t worry, you’ll have another opportunity at the next exit on your road trip. Chances are, another one will be there.
Aside from jokes that may refer to Waffle Houses reproducing like peaches on the branches of Southern trees, the chain is classically American. Waffle House, created in 1955, is like taking the classic diner experience and matching it with the industrial nature of the assembly line. They are food factories. Always in operation and always in flow. Feeding fuel to the road runners.
Waffle House seems to have the mightiest presence in transient or college towns. Hammond, Louisiana, in the center of the I-55 and I-12 cross-section, and home to Southeastern Louisiana University, is both of those things. Naturally, Waffle House is well represented here in my hometown.
Today, there is five franchise locations in our town with a population of 20,019, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. There is a sixth location in the neighboring town of Ponchatoula. So my personalrelationship with Waffle House is a close one.
Normally, I am not a regular consumer of chain restaurants that are not locally owned and operated, but there is a certain reliability that comes with a one or several Waffle Houses in your community. They offer a menu that has mostly gone unchanged since their beginning and they keep their prices relatively low no matter what era of time we are currently in.
The set up is simple. You can order items individually or order a breakfast meat, or sandwich, that comes with some kind of combo of eggs, grits, hash-browns and toast. The All-Star Special costs $7.50 on average, and it includes everything mentioned before, plus a waffle. The whole meal process, including the service, is fast, friendly, efficient and fulfilling.
Familiarity is comforting. That’s why I find it reassuring that no matter how much our world may seem out of control and overwhelming, operations at Waffle House are usually pretty much the same. The food is hot and made to order in a process that unfolds before your eyes.
My father introduced me to Waffle House for while I had to be held out of school for a visit to the doctor for the first time in grade school. In the early 1990s, breakfast locations were limited as this was a time period before hipsters gentrified the concept of brunch. Being mostly a novice to breakfast restaurants, Waffle House was about to blow my mind.
Upon entering the establishment as a child, I immediately experienced a sensory overload. The sound of the chatter, the clinking of the dishes stacked together and the smell of bacon from the grill made me forget about my ear infection. It was the first time I saw cooks in a restaurant make meals professionally without the petition of a wall. It made me conscious of creation. The truckers planning routes with their maps, business folks in suits and accents from other regions I had never heard before…what were they all doing here?
From a young age, it was apparent to me that Waffle House is more than just a food joint. It’s a place where you rest, reset and make plans. I like to think when our younger selves chose this place after a night out on the bar scene that it’s not only because we craved buttery and savory comfort food. We went there to navigate and discuss the journey of life and its social pressures.
As you get older, the situations change but trying to understand your role in existence does not. On days when I am not at my best, I find myself alone at Waffle House. Not alone in the gloomy sense, but physically alone to mentally focus on the inner self. Like the fellow truckers and travelers in the same establishment, I am on a road also.
How long will I live in this town? What’s next in my career? When are we starting a family? Do we have enough money for rent and utilities?
The coffee, in the same style of diner mugs they have always been, is bottomless and it gives me life. The wheels turn in my mind and I can solve my problems here, sipping on real hot coffee in a mug to warm my insides. No frappes, mochas or foam art placed on top of a bad blend here. Just a warm cup of joe that refills itself as many times as I need it to.
I also appreciate that Waffle House stays true to a successful model and doesn’t try too hard to adopt modern trends. While some customers see it as a retro business, I do not. It bothers me when new diners try to look old.
Why is it that everyone that attempts to start a diner any year after 1959 runs their business model as a 50s nostalgia theme with a tacky flea market memorabilia feel? Waffle House doesn’t do this. They simply set a standard when they began and never changed anything. This doesn’t make them nostalgia driven. Their business model is simply timeless.
There is an argument to be made that Waffle House has been detrimental to the true original American diner, killing off those locally owned and operated. As a diner fan, I sympathize with the concern, but the town diners were dying off long before the arrival of Waffle House in your community due to the interstate systems driving traffic away from the main streets of towns.
Waffle House, aimed to please in road efficiency rather than ambiance but the funny thing is, they indirectly succeeded in both. That’s why it works. I am glad there is one, or several, where I live.
It’s always been ready and available for all lost travelers to find their way back on the road again.