The untold truth of Waffle House

Few restaurants are considered more authentically American than Waffle House. Known for its low prices, simple menu, and 24/7 hours of operation — and of course, the hash browns — this iconic yet no-frills chain operates over 2,100 locations in 25 states, primarily in the American south. It's a go-to spot for anyone who wants friendly service and a homestyle meal, no matter what time it is and often, no matter how intoxicated you are. Even culinary aesthete Anthony Bourdain is a self-professed fan, proving that even the fanciest palates can be satiated at Wa Ho, as it's affectionately known by aficionados. So what's the skinny on the OG of greasy spoons? Here are some must-know facts about Waffle House.

They were founded in the 1950s by two neighbors

Like many American corporations, Waffle House started small, when in 1955, Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner — two neighbors in the Avondale Estates area of Georgia — opened the first ever Waffle House restaurant. According to company lore there were no plans to open up additional restaurants, but that changed in 1957 when they purchased what would become the second location. By 1961 they had four separate, free-standing restaurants operating in Georgia. They continued to expand throughout the 1960s and beyond, eventually becoming the ubiquitous establishment with bright yellow signage that they are today. Both men passed away in early 2017.

​The hash brown lingo started in the 1980s

One of the major Waffle House traditions centers on how you'd like your hash browns: smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, and/or country? Interestingly enough, most of these options were not on the original Waffle House menu. Initially, you only had the option of getting them scattered on the grill and smothered in onions. The ability to further customize your toppings was introduced in the 1980s, when they added covered and chunked as options. The other options were added over the years, based on both customer demand, and innovation on behalf of Waffle House chefs. How do you like yours? Smothered, covered, diced, and capped, here.

They serve the whole menu 24/7

Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Also, it doesn't matter what time you stop in for a meal as they serve everything on their menu around the clock — there's no distinct breakfast, lunch, or dinner hours, and there's only one menu (though it has two sides). That means you don't have to worry about getting up early enough to get breakfast, or get weird looks for ordering a steak at 4 a.m. 

There's a condiment code among staff

In most restaurants, the waitstaff communicates with the kitchen via some sort of ticketing system, or in some cases, verbally. But allegedly, at Waffle House, there's a code that allows waitstaff and chefs to communicate wordlessly via staple diner items like packets of ketchup or jam, or food items like pickles. For example, a jelly packet placed on the bottom of the plate means scrambled eggs. A mustard packet facing upwards on the plate means pork chops, but flipped it indicates country ham. Additionally, the code can also be used to indicate how well your meat should be cooked, and whether cheese or bacon should be added.

FEMA relies on them

In spite of Waffle House's promise to always be open, even when everyone else is closed, there are some instances when they have to close due to circumstances beyond their control, such as hurricanes or other natural disasters. Once the storm passes, though, and the waters recede, they're usually pretty swift about re-opening unless there's been catastrophic damage. They're so good, in fact, that you can count on them, and FEMA does. They call this the Waffle House Index, which gauges how much of an impact a storm or event has had on a community based on whether or not the local Waffle House has closed its doors. The sooner Waffle House is open for business, the sooner life will be restored to normal.

They have a music label

The jukeboxes you find inside Waffle House have a selection of music that, if you're not listening closely, sounds pretty standard. But some of those songs aren't songs you'll find on a regular jukebox. Rather, they're songs that were produced by Waffle House's own record label, Waffle Music. The idea came about back in the 1980s, when co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. wanted to have music inspired by and about Waffle House playing in their restaurants. Some favorites include Raisins in My Toast, Waffle House is for You and Me, and Special Lady, the last of which celebrates the waitresses who staff the breakfast mogul. And while many of the tunes are nostalgic in nature, or patently absurd at times, they're still producing music to this day.

They serve 145 waffles per minute

Waffle House was named not after the most popular item on the menu, but rather, after the item that commands the most profit: the humble waffle. Still, they certainly sell enough of them to warrant being dubbed Waffle House, as they dish out about 145 waffles per minute, collectively. They also sell an estimated 341 strips of bacon every 60 seconds, as well as 238 orders of hashbrowns. Since 1955, they have served roughly 2.5 million eggs, 1.3 million orders of grits, and 1.2 million cups of coffee. And if you laid out all of the bacon they serve in a year end-to-end, it would wrap around the equator.

They used to sell Chick-fil-A sandwiches

Chick-fil-A and Waffle House, while not polar opposites, are separate and distinct restaurant chains. But there was a time when the two intersected, as you used to be able to buy Chick-fil-A sandwiches at Waffle House. And if you could buy fried chicken sandwiches there, that meant you could potentially jerry-rig a plate of fried chicken and waffles. Some folks got lucky in Georgia back in 2015, when a Waffle House in Athens paired up with Chick-fil-A for a chicken and waffles event that was quite popular, so maybe someday they'll pair up on the national level again.

The first location is now a museum

If you want to eat at the original Waffle House, you're out of luck as it's been converted into a museum. You can however, get a tour of the restaurant, as well as browse the building next door, which is full of Waffle House artifacts — everything from dishwashers to uniforms is housed there, as well as old menus. Interestingly enough, the original building was occupied by two other businesses — first a Chinese food restaurant and then a tire store — as the original restaurant didn't stay open. Waffle House had to buy it back once they realized the building's history and significance. 

They've been sued for racism

The Waffle House isn't all comfort food and southern hospitality, if some of their customers are to be believed. In fact, they've been sued multiple times by patrons who say they've experienced racist behavior at the hands of Waffle House employees. In 2005, four separate suits were filed by black patrons who were allegedly denied service, served unsanitary food, or were the victims of racist insults from servers. Additionally, Waffle House operators in Virginia settled lawsuits with 12 black, Asian, and Hispanic customers who also said they received rude service. And back in 2001, members of a gospel choir filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit after they allegedly were forced to leave so white patrons could have their seats. 

In spite of the allegations, Waffle House denies any wrongdoing. "We serve all races," co-founder Joe Rogers told the Associated Press. "We're just a target. We're not guilty and never have been."

The chairman has been accused of sexual assault

Years before the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #metoo campaign on social media, a woman stepped forward and accused then-CEO and now-chairman of Waffle House of sexual assault. According to the accuser, Joseph Rogers Jr. (son of co-founder Joseph Rogers Sr.) made her "perform sexual services," and repeatedly attempted to force himself on her during her nine-year tenure as his assistant and housekeeper. Allegedly he forced her to do this as condition of her employment. But the story doesn't end there. Rogers filed suit against the woman after it surfaced that she secretly made a recording of one of their sexual encounters in order to support her accusation — he claims that she violated his privacy and caused him emotional distress. The woman and her attorneys were later indicted for the tape, as well as for extortion, setting into motion a tangled web of lawsuits that are, years later, still unresolved.

The executives work holidays too

Since Waffle House is always open, that means anyone who works at one of their locations likely has to work some weekends and holidays, including biggies like Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. And while that might seem unfair to the workers who staff the restaurants, the executives at Waffle House don't get the day off either — they too have to work all major holidays. The co-founders made this mandatory in solidarity with the cooks and waitstaff who have to show up at, say, 6 a.m. on New Year's Day, which seems only fair. 

Some workers had terrible experiences

Waffle House touts itself as "America's place to work" and proclaims: "We're not in the food business. We're in the people business." However, some workers have had a less than stellar experience working for the waffle mogul because of their policies. For one, as a condition of employment, some employees say they had to sign an agreement that they wouldn't take legal action against them with other employees. Additionally, employees who rely on tips say they also have to spend time doing dishes or cleaning bathrooms, which is non-tipped work — that can eat into employee income. On top of that, some restaurants allegedly deduct $4 from your shift for a meal whether you eat one or not. And since they never close, employees have had to brave bad weather and dangerous conditions to get to work, which can be dangerous for them.