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 tough to get used to. Waffle House manager Katie Pearson told the Associated Press that it took her a few weeks before all that grill code made sense. She's now a pro and said she'll be fluent in the code forever.

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, but 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 little work 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 pretty much instantly.

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 Andrew Knowlton 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 Knowlton 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% 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. "There are Raisins in my Toast" 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 Andrew Knowlton found out when starting a 24-hour shift at the Waffle House, the chain is pretty serious about this policy.

"She'd [Knowlton'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 Knowlton. 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% 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 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.

It's normal to run out of ingredients

Between refills of coffee and slinging plates, working at Waffle House is a whirlwind of activity. Because so many people pour through its doors on a daily basis, it's normal for the restaurant to run out of some pretty essential ingredients. According to a Waffle House grill operator on Reddit, "I once ran out of waffle iron spray which meant I had to go a whole 10 hours telling people I wasn't able to serve them waffles of all things."

It probably seems strange that a 24-hour diner like Waffle House wouldn't be prepared for food shortages in advance. On the contrary, the all-hours service makes the occurrence inevitable because, well, it's open all the time. But the Reddit commenter offers another explanation: Essentially, the restaurant doesn't replenish ingredients frequently, often waiting until the beginning of a new shift to restock whatever's low. In other words, employees might have to make do or improvise with whatever's on hand in the kitchen. 

Running out of tomatoes, lettuce, or even American cheese would be frustrating, but not a crisis. They're mainly toppers, so it wouldn't necessarily affect the meal. But running out of eggs or potatoes? Over half the menu would be out of order, meaning no omelets, no breakfast platters, and definitely no batter to make waffles, one of the core reasons people go to Waffle House in the first place. 

Working the night shift is not for the faint-hearted

According to Indeed, work at Waffle House is divided into three periods: first shift (morning), second shift (afternoon), and third shift (evening to overnight). The third shift typically runs from 9 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m., and by all accounts, it's not for the faint of heart. For one, the crowds are bigger and far more rowdy than the daytime diners. For two, the requests descend into downright absurdity, as writer Andrew Knowlton discovered first-hand working a full day at the Southern chain (per Bon Appétit). 

Between the grueling conditions and outright exhaustion of working at night, it takes a strong will to power through. That explains why a Waffle House manager on Reddit exercises caution when staffing the nighttime crew. "I personally will only put people on the night shift who I know I can trust and who I am fully confident can execute the job the way we showed them," they wrote, adding that "it's the only way I can sleep at night." 

Like a moth to flame, Waffle House attracts night owls seeking greasy, carb-heavy eats. It's the time of night when bar-hoppers and party-goers need to recharge with a cup of coffee or heck, a full breakfast spread, and no other restaurant is open except, of course, Waffle House. Employees certainly experience challenges at any time of day, but it's no coincidence that working the graveyard shift puts their job in a whole new light.

Workers enjoy free food on the job

A great perk of working a fast food gig is the employee discount, and Waffle House's policy is extremely generous. One worker even called it the "best in the restaurant business" (via Reddit). What exactly are we talking about here? Free food, that's what. At Waffle House, workers can enjoy a wide array of menu items free of charge during their shifts. A small selection doesn't meet the restaurant's conditions, but honestly, it's hard to complain since the menu prices are already so low to begin with (per Fast Food Menu Prices).

Freebies pretty much cover most of the breakfast menu, according to the Reddit poster. But workers don't have to limit themselves to only bacon and grits for a complimentary meal. Plenty of lunch and dinner items count as well, and the options are equally appealing — think salads, sandwiches, and even cheeseburgers. The only things employees have to pay for are special items such as desserts and meats (chicken, steak, etc.), which Waffle House has compiled in a pricing guide should workers need to know the cost.

Former employee Yehong Zhu puts the notion of free up for debate, as they allege the restaurant lowered employee wages to cover expenses for meals (via Slate). But getting to smother and cover to your heart's desire — and all on the restaurant's dime — still isn't too shabby when it comes to the service industry perks out there. 

Customers might lend a hand in the kitchen

Waffle House workers put up with a lot. Demanding customers, repetitive jukebox tunes. None of those nuisances, in our view, beats the nightmare scenario of a short-staffed kitchen, which a lone employee in Birmingham, Alabama had to face solo. In 2019, Alabama Local News reported on a single worker handling a location by themselves after co-workers failed to show up to cover for absences in the schedule. This meant the employee was all alone during the shift, and even at midnight the restaurant was buzzing with activity, so all the responsibilities — cooking, cleaning, serving — fell to them. 

If the thought of this worker flipping eggs and being on dish duty simultaneously has your heart racing, this horror tale thankfully gets a happy ending. Instead of letting the overworked individual drown in disarray, customers actually stood up and started helping them run the restaurant. One patron got to work washing dishes, and another wearing a party dress and heels operated the coffee machine and took orders (via The Washington Post). 

Ethan Crispo, the bystander who saw the entire situation play out, told Alabama Local News "It was just one of the most wild instances of really, really cool people just coming together." Waffle House commended the participants for lending a hand, even encouraging the dishwasher to apply. But warm feelings aside, it just goes to show that the line between employee and customer truly blurs at the Waffle House. 

Waffle House employees become like family

It's common knowledge Waffle House workers forge close ties with the friendly faces who regularly occupy the booths. That welcoming attitude doesn't just make Waffle House a great place to dine out; for employees, this also makes it a great place to work. Take it from this waitress who did an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit. She described her work cohorts as more like family than her own blood relatives, a common sentiment many Waffle House employees express no matter where they fall in the employment hierarchy. 

Bonding with the people you work side-by-side with is part and parcel of any job, but food service can inspire particularly tight-knit relationships. It makes sense that in a bustling kitchen environment, team members have to communicate and collaborate with each other in order to do their jobs in the first place. Each task is crucial to this, whether it's marking the plates, firing up the grills, or washing dirty dishes to make way for the clean ones. It encourages mutual trust, and that trust builds strong connections. 

As a superior, manager Katie Pearson takes this all-in-the-family approach seriously by ensuring her team has everything they need to do a good job. "My goal is to make sure they are making money, they are happy when they come to work, they are getting out of this what they need to get out of it, and they are making their customers happy" (per AP News).