Workers Reveal What It's Really Like To Work At Waffle House

There are plenty of diners dotted across the American landscape, but few roadside eateries are as iconic as Waffle House. The restaurant with its yellow sign and brown brick building is about as no-frills as you get, and while you can instantly smell grease in the air, you won't get a whiff of pretentiousness. Since its humble Georgia beginnings in 1955, Waffle House has been about serving its customers good, simple food and providing honest work for those who cook and serve that food.

Working at Waffle House is by no means a glamorous job. Managers often do many of the same menial tasks as first-day employees fresh on the job. "It's hard to get an inflated opinion of yourself when you're washing dishes every day," the company's president Walt Ehmer said (though how often Mr. Ehmer pulls dish duty is unknown).

Food service can often be a tiring job with low pay and long hours, and in that regard, Waffle House is comparable to working at Wendy's or Taco Bell. Yet, there are also key differences to this 24/7 dining establishment. Straight from the employees themselves, this is what it's like to work at Waffle House.

A job at Waffle House is incredibly fast-paced

Consider this little factoid when it comes to Waffle House's popularity. The quick service diner serves roughly 80,000 customers a day — and that's just in its Atlanta locations. With those sorts of numbers, it should come as no surprise that Waffle House is a pretty busy working environment. And that's putting it lightly. Those who have the energy and can handle the pressure of juggling a dozen different orders are the only ones who last.

Katie Pearson, who works as a Waffle House manager in Greenwood, South Carolina, told the Associated Press that adapting to the restaurant's fast pace was a struggle at first. "I don't think I knew what I was doing for two weeks," Pearson said. "I had problems calling out orders." Once Pearson was able to adapt to the multitasking aspect the work demands, she fell in love with the job.

Adapting to speedy demands and meeting Waffle House's goal of getting food out to every customer in eight minutes or less can be tough, especially when one considers that Waffle House doesn't hold orders. "Sometimes I can get into some kind of rhythm that helps me a bit, but for the most part it is pretty overwhelming," a Waffle House grill cook said on Reddit

Waffle House grill cooks use a cheat sheet

Quite possibly the trickiest aspect of learning the ropes of Waffle House employment is learning the Waffle House order language. The menu at Waffle House isn't exactly complex, but since servers and grill cooks do things old school and don't use any sort of computer to file customer orders, keeping track of it all can be complicated. In order to ensure that those scattered, smothered, and covered hash browns come out just as the customer ordered, the staff use a shorthand code (via The Wall Street Journal).

As waitresses read out the orders to cooks, the grill operators arrange the plates in certain ways to let them know what each order entails. For example, a face up mustard packet signifies a pork chop, and face down is country ham. Jelly cups in certain plate positions indicate how to cook the eggs. There are tons of other complex condiment positions that tell staff just how you want everything on your order.

Not surprisingly, this can be pretty confusing for newbies. A grill cook on Reddit said they were new on the job and found the entire thing to be "pretty ridiculous" and "extremely overwhelming." Waffle House manager Katie Pearson told the Associated Press that it took her a few weeks before all that grill code "clicked." She's now a pro and said she'll "never forget the language."

The money working at Waffle House isn't bad

Like so many serving jobs, Waffle House servers have a rather small hourly wage that starts at around $2.13 an hour (via Eater). The key to making decent money, of course, is in the tips. Get those waffles to the customers quick, get'em out door, and get the next group of butts in the booth. Repeat. A friendly server without much experience can actually make decent money working at the Waffle House.

Server Bambi Morgan on Quora said that while some days were slow, she often made $20 an hour. Both Morgan and server Desaree Altizer said it really boils down to the restaurant's location, the shift an employee works, and connecting with customers. "Just remember your regulars," said Altizer.

Most employees stressed that it was really all about getting a busy shift. Afternoon shifts are rather crummy with mostly just coffee drinkers, and breakfast shifts are generally pretty solid. As one Waffle House employee who spent five years with the restaurant explained, "Third shift (9pm-6am) is the best." These shifts over the weekend can be especially lucrative. "The bar crowd comes in and it's nothing to walk out with $200 to $300 in your pocket in the morning," they said.

Waffle House employees get to know their regular customers

Perhaps you consider yourself a regular Waffle House customer, but are you really a regular if the grill cooks don't start prepping your hash browns just the way you like before you even sit down? That's a debate for another time, but one thing is for sure: If you work at Waffle House, you'll most certainly get to know the regulars.

Katie Pearson, a Waffle House manager in South Carolina, said that many of her customers order the same thing every time they visit. She's so familiar with some regulars that she starts buttering their toast just the way they like when they pull into the parking lot. "You become familiar with it," she said. "You kind of get to know everybody." Some regulars Pearson sees every day, and she considers them almost like family.

Getting to know those customers and developing regulars is essential for the chain's business. Waffle House manager Randy Coleman told The Wall Street Journal that he won't hire somebody if they aren't friendly and conversational. It doesn't take him long to detect if somebody isn't cut out for the job, either. "You will not be able to fake it," Coleman said, further explaining: "It won't be hard to figure out how you really feel about people."

Getting hired at Waffle House isn't difficult

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that it's not terribly difficult to land a job at Waffle House (provided you're at least somewhat friendly). Former Waffle House waitress Yehong Zhu worked at the diner in 2014 before going off to Harvard and much more cushy jobs in the tech industry. At the time, though, Waffle House was the only place that would hire her.

Zhu said Chick-fil-A was far too competitive, and without any job experience, the soon-to-be waitress was turned down everywhere she applied. "Waffle House was the only company that took a chance on me. For that, I was grateful," Zhu wrote in an essay about the experience for Slate.

A grill operator on Reddit with a "lack of experience" echoed a similar circumstance. "Waffle House was the first place to hire me and give me a chance to work." And landing a job with Waffle House doesn't take long. According to employees on Indeed, the hiring process can be as simple as applying online, with some employees saying they were "hired on the spot."

Working at Waffle House can be a messy and exhausting job

Working at a job like Waffle House, which can be slammed with hungry patrons in a matter of mere seconds, can be incredibly tiring. A slow shift at the Waffle House typically means low tips, so while staying busy with hungry customers is certainly a good thing, it can understandably take a toll.

In a piece on working at the famed late-night dining establishment, The Wall Street Journal noted an especially revealing Glassdoor review from a worker who had survived the Waffle House trenches. "You will find grits in everything you wear," they said. Former waffle slinger Yehong Zhu noted in an essay for Slate that she was typically exhausted at the end of her shifts, which included duties besides simply taking orders and serving customers. "Sometimes I scrubbed plates. Sometimes I scrubbed toilets," said Zhu. That's right, Waffle House employees do it all.

Bon Appétit writer Brian Finke spent an entire 24 hours working at a Waffle House (an exercise in stamina for sure). The experience left him not surprisingly exhausted and "greasy." Simply put, working at a Waffle House isn't for slackers. As Finke put it, "Being a short-order cook is the hardest job on the planet."

Managers go to Waffle House University

Waffle House University may not have a school mascot or football team (that we know of), but when it comes to educating their pupils on how to run a 24/7 diner, nobody does it better.

According to a Waffle House district manager on Reddit, attending WHU was similar to a college class, and students would learn about various aspects of the company from different guest speakers within the organization. And yes, test-taking is involved. The Waffle House grad said the training program for those without experience typically lasts around 12 weeks. If a person has already proven themselves as a grill cook or server, that education timeframe might be a bit shorter.

While previous experience is great, it's not entirely necessarily for somebody to start as a server or grill cook at Waffle House to become a manager. The same district manager on Reddit said they were hired as a manager fresh out of college. "I was pursuing an associates degree in business administration when I got hooked up with Waffle House," they said. "It was a perfect fit for me because I wanted a career in business and I had always worked in restaurants, so it seemed that everything I had ever done was leading up to that exact moment in time where I was recruited into Waffle House."

Waffle House employees deal with their fair share of rude customers

If you've ever been to Waffle House at 2 a.m. on a weekend, then you know the crowd can be a bit livelier than the customers who fill up the weekday morning barstools. Every employee in the service industry is going to run into rude customers occasionally, and Waffle House is no different. Only at Waffle House, drunk customers are 100 percent a given.

A Waffle House waitress on Reddit said that a customer getting sick and throwing up was a weekly occurrence. "Courteous customers make it into the toilets or in the grass," she said. You can probably guess the sort of mess that the less courteous customers leave. While intoxicated customers getting sick is one thing, some can be downright unruly. 

Waffle House fights don't often make headlines — unless Kid Rock is involved — but they do occasionally happen. A Waffle House manager on Reddit said they've "seen plenty of fights over the years," including a drunk who had his dinner plate broken over his head.

It's logical to believe, however, that some locations are just going to attract more customer outbursts than others. Another Waffle House employee on Reddit said they never saw any fights. "The closest we got was a customer who refused to leave after being asked." The Waffle House manager said it's only then that the police are called to escort any rude customers out.

Hearing the same songs on the Waffle House jukebox can get pretty annoying

If sizzling eggs and hissing waffle irons aren't enough to get customers' toes tapping, most Waffle House locations have a stocked jukebox full of tunes to choose from. Customers have the option of choosing hit songs from popular artists, but they can also opt for lesser-known songs. "Waffle Do Wop" and "Grill Operator" are just a smattering of original Waffle House tunes. The chain has had its own record label for over 35 years (via Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Work at a Waffle House long enough, and it's a safe bet an employee will learn the lyrics for a great deal of these original tunes. While some Waffle House employees confess to loving the original songs, others would prefer to never hear them again. "Oh god ... at first I laughed at them and now ... now I can't stand them," said one employee on Reddit. Another employee who had put in five years on the job said they hate the songs. "Some regulars used to play them on purpose to drive me crazy," they said.

Maybe do your local Waffle House staff a favor and spare them from having to hear "There Are Raisins In My Toast" for the zillionth time on your next visit.

Waffle House is serious about employees' appearance

Most chain restaurants have some sort of uniform or dress code that employees must adhere to. The only difference is just how strictly those dress codes are enforced. Take a look around the next time you're inside a Waffle House, and you'll probably notice that most of the men working are clean shaven. As writer Brian Finke found out when starting a 24-hour shift at the Waffle House, the chain is pretty serious about this policy.

"She'd [Finke's manager Donna] told me during my brief training session the previous day that I'd either need to shave or wear something called a beard net," wrote Finke. The Waffle House newcomer ignored this advice and had to shave in the bathroom before starting his shift.

According to another Waffle House employee on Reddit, most piercings are also a bit iffy. "All cooks must shave daily, and no piercings are allowed at all (which sucks, I have to take out my eyebrow ring and earrings constantly, though my tongue ring I have gotten away with)," they said. It's worth noting, though, that these were the rules in 2012, and numerous employees on Indeed have said Waffle House is a bit more lax about piercings now — provided an employee's face doesn't look like a human pin cushion.

The COVID pandemic was especially hard on Waffle House employees

One could argue that Waffle House workers are more accustomed to working in dangerous conditions than other food service employees. The chain's restaurants often face natural disasters head-on and stay open during tornados and hurricanes. This defiance of mother nature has even led to the informal metric the "Waffle House Index" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If the Waffle House is still open, things can't be that bad.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a different story altogether, though. By May 2020, many Waffle Houses across the United States were forced to close (via Eater). The lucky ones that did stay open were doing takeout only, and for a place like Waffle House that depends on a steady stream of customers grabbing a quick bite, that meant trouble. Waffle House saw a 70 percent drop in its sales, and around 700 of its stores closed.

While Waffle Houses management took heavy pay cuts, some 28,000 employees lost their jobs altogether. Those who didn't lose their jobs had their hours drastically cut, and with an hourly shift of wage as low as $2.13 and only a trickle of customers, the tips dried up. An employee in Auburn, Alabama told Eater they were only making around $5 or $6 in tips per shift.