Written by: Meg Ermer
It is inevitable. No matter who you are, you will eventually find yourself pulling into the parking lot underneath a yellow, Scrabble-reminiscent sign proudly proclaiming “WAFLE HUSE” or “AFFLE HOUSE,” depending on whichever letters have the lighting properly working that night (and, yes, it is nighttime — this is part of the inevitability).
You will be seated at a slightly sticky table with a slightly stickier menu, and you will be bombarded by the combination of fluorescent lighting, order-shouting, plate-slamming, people-watching cacophony. Morgan Wallen (if you are in the Tennessee area) or Burna Boy (if you are in the Atlanta area) will be softly playing from an electronic jukebox near the door. You will drench your waffle in syrup and your scattered, smothered, peppered, chunked hashbrowns in ketchup. As you eat, you will begin to feel somewhat happier and somewhat ill. The server will bring you the check. $9.25. This is the American Dream.
You will not be completely satisfied; but, you know, someday soon, you will return.
Waffle House first opened on Labor Day weekend in 1955 outside Atlanta, Georgia. It was founded by World War II veterans Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, whose goal was to create a fast-dining experience that was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Today, there are about 2,000 Waffle House locations scattered throughout the American South. Waffle House’s numerous locations and constant business hours even allow the severity of natural disasters to be measured based on the percentage of its restaurants closed or running on backup generators in a given area.
Everyone knows Waffle House; and, for the most part, everyone loves Waffle House. It is where you go with your friends on a late-night drive, where a family stops for breakfast on a road trip, where a third-shift worker grabs a bite to eat on the way home. In Alexis Ohanian’s case, it is the place where you go after walking out of the middle of the LSAT and are struck with the idea of creating a site called “Reddit.” It is a business model built on what Americans value most — fast food, cheap prices and fun, syrup-soaked memories. What could possibly be wrong with it?
In 2018, an Alabama Waffle House called the police when Chikesia Clemons refused to pay extra for plastic eating utensils. The officer threw her to the floor, threatened to break her arm and arrested her for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Only a few months earlier, at a North Carolina Waffle House, Anthony Wall, who had just taken his younger sister and her friends to prom, was choked, pinned against the window and arrested. After both events, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Waffle House to review its policies to ensure employees did not needlessly subject Black, unarmed customers to police brutality. Waffle House denied all allegations of racism in these incidents.
At the time of my writing this article, when I Google “waffle house,” all the top news stories are about various shootings in or outside Waffle Houses. Entire articles are dedicated to analyzing why Waffle Houses are the sites of so much crime. Some news-reporting agencies have termed Waffle House the “most dangerous restaurant chain in America.”
And yet, we keep going back.
Perhaps, it is because all the “good” aspects of Waffle House are two-sided coins, with the tail side cleverly weighed down to avoid difficult conversations and examinations of our values. For each thing that we love about Waffle House, there is a downside that is often glossed over. Late-night Waffle House escapades are only made possible by those who commit to working through the night at minimum wage. Is it Christmas? Thanksgiving? It doesn’t matter — Waffle House’s staff will be there to serve you and to keep the wheels of capitalism churning while the rest of the country spends the holidays with their families.
It is perfectly acceptable to show up to Waffle House with uncombed hair, in your sweatpants, with mascara streaming down your face. But maybe something else, something unchangeable, like the color of your skin, could be an issue.
In many ways, Waffle House is a reflection of America.
Waffle House brings together people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. It is a place where you can brush shoulders with future CEOs, construction teams and college students, all over a chocolate-chip waffle. It is a place where ideas as large as Reddit can be born and post-basketball games can be celebrated, and it is a place where lives can be quickly and brutally taken and prejudice can continue to manifest itself. It is yet another institution whose flaws and injustices we have collectively chosen to overlook in favor of convenience and a two-egg breakfast combo.
I give Waffle House 2/5 stars.