ATLANTA — It’s well past midnight and a movie theater manager sits down to supper after his shift. A couple nearby sips coffee. In walk two women who have, in all fairness, seen better days, their jeans worn thin, their hair matted.
The women don’t even merit a stare. This is Waffle House.
This is where college professors and construction workers sit side-by-side at yellow counters. It’s a 24-hour diner where the coffee’s always on, the grits always bubbling. It’s where hungry folks from all walks have been coming for 50 years to get cheap, hot food that’s become as familiar as the matter-of-fact greeting:
“Hey ... what y’all havin’?”
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There are 1,500 Waffle Houses spread across 25 states, as far west as Arizona and as far north as Illinois, but the chain is still rooted deeply in the South and retains a distinctively down-home, blue-collar aura.
Maybe it’s the simple menu anchored by eggs, grits and hash browns “smothered and covered” in cheese and onions, the firm cash-only policy or the fact it serves most meals for under $5. It somehow feels like breakfast at Grandma’s house — before she started worrying about her cholesterol.
“You know at every (highway) exit there’s a simmering pot of grits waiting for you,” said John Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. “Waffle House is a company that manages to be a national presence that still generates local pride, and that’s tough to do. Boysenberry syrup from IHOP is not in our vernacular.”
But such warm feelings have been tempered in recent years by accusations of racism.
In January, black customers from four Southern states filed federal lawsuits claiming that Waffle House servers announced they wouldn’t serve blacks, deliberately served unsanitary food to minority patrons, directed racial epithets at blacks and became verbally abusive when asked to wait on blacks.
Dozens of plaintiffs have made similar claims in the last decade. This month, the operator of Waffle Houses in Virginia settled lawsuits with 12 customers, including black, Asian-American and Hispanic patrons, who said they were treated rudely.
Waffle House executives insist they’ve been sued only because they’re a big company and they’re quick to point out that the restaurant was among the first eateries to integrate after its founding in 1950s Atlanta.
“We serve all races,” said co-founder Joe Rogers. “We’re just a target. We’re not guilty and never have been.”
Waffle House started in September 1955 after Rogers, then a regional manager for a now-defunct diner chain out of Memphis, Tenn., walked up to a real estate agent who lived two doors down and proposed a partnership.
Rogers knew fast-food shops like McDonald’s were just starting and he had an idea for an in-between, a sit-down restaurant that rivaled the speed of drive-ins.
“He said, ’You build a restaurant and I’ll show you how to run it,”’ recalled Tom Forkner, Waffle House’s other founder.
The two built a restaurant in Avondale Estates, an east Atlanta suburb, and painted it yellow to catch the eye of motorists. It was Forkner who proposed naming the restaurant for the biggest moneymaker on its 16-item menu: the waffle.
“It was the highest profit item you could do, so I said, ’Call it Waffle House and encourage people to eat waffles.”’
The name also made it clear the restaurant was different from carryout stands. “You can’t carry out waffles,” Rogers said. “They get pretty flimsy. So we thought, ’Waffle House’ll work.”’
The biggest problem initially was letting customers know that they also served burgers and T-bones for lunch and dinner. And people could get the full menu any time — a patty melt at 7 in the morning, or waffles and grits at 4 p.m.
When Waffle House opened, only one other restaurant in Atlanta was open 24 hours. Rogers convinced Forkner that in the modern world of interstate highways and television, people would like a restaurant that never closed, not even on Christmas. Forkner was skeptical until he visited his restaurant in the middle of the night.
“I thought everyone went to bed at night,” Forkner said, “but I was wrong.”
By 1960, there were four Waffle Houses around Atlanta. Inspired by the rapid expansion of McDonald’s, profits were plunged into expansion, and Waffle House started franchising. By the late 1960s there were 27 restaurants, then the formula picked up steam. Today Macon, Ga., alone has 10 Waffle House restaurants — and only nine McDonald’s.
Back at the Atlanta Waffle House, movie manager Charles Kimbro has been eating the patty-melt plates with hash browns since he was a kid. “I started early with my parents,” he said. His father still goes every day for morning coffee. “The food is fast and they’re always friendly.”
Nowhere is Waffle House’s workingman vibe stronger than at its headquarters in Norcross, Ga. A plaque in the lobby says the whole building is dedicated to the “Poor Old Cash Customer Who Made It All Possible.”
The company is privately held and doesn’t disclose annual sales figures, but for an idea how well the little yellow diners are doing, consider this: Two percent of all eggs produced in the United States for food service end up on a Waffle House plate.
Forkner and Rogers no longer run the company (it’s headed by Joe Rogers Jr.), but executives still are required to work holidays, including Christmas and New Year’s. They figure that if waitresses have to show up on Thanksgiving, executives should, too.
“We’re a family,” Rogers said.
As for the future, Rogers and Forkner envision a lot more Waffle Houses where things stay the same. There are no plans to end the cash-only policy (credit cards would be too slow, Rogers said) or to change the menu. Except for salads and sandwich wraps, and more pictures for customers who don’t speak English, it looks about the same as it did in 1955.
“We serve the basic foods, and the basic foods never change,” Rogers said.
Maybe that’s what has kept Waffle House going. The fact that a restaurant in Tallahassee, Fla., or Tupelo, Miss., will look the same, serve the same foods and somehow not feel like a fast-food chain.
“There’s something about the intimacy of sitting at that counter and smelling all the grease and watching the short-order cook at the grill,” Edge said. “It’s a fascinating pageant. It’s more than a place to eat, it’s a place of fellowship.”
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