The Untold Truth Of Waffle House

Picture this: It's 4 a.m. and maybe you've had a few cocktails or been out with your friends all night. You had dinner, but that was hours ago, and now you need another meal in your belly before you head home to pass out. What do you do to feed your empty tummy? For most of us, that answer involves copious amounts of grease, carbs, and cheese. If you live somewhere in the southern half of the U.S., there's a very good chance your go-to spot in this situation is Waffle House.

Waffle House has built its reputation on its excellent renditions of American diner classics, especially breakfast foods like its eponymous waffles (via Atlanta Eats). There are other breakfast chains out there, like IHOP and Denny's, but none inspire the devotion from fans that Waffle House does — sorry Northerners and West Coasters, you're just going to have to take a road trip to the South if you want to eat at one of the best chain diners in America. Waffle House devotees have created their own culture with its own special language and customs, and Waffle House regulars are very attached to their favorite menu items.

Just because Waffle House is universally beloved doesn't mean it has a completely unblemished track record, though. We dug into Waffle House's lore to uncover the scattered, smothered, and covered story behind this American icon.

The company started as a single diner in suburban Atlanta

Waffle House has close to 2,000 restaurants these days, but most empires start small. Waffle House is no different. It began in 1955 as a 24-hour diner in Avondale Estates, a suburban community located outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The restaurant was founded by two neighbors, Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner. Per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rogers was a World War II vet who started cooking at a diner chain called the Toddle House in 1947. He rose up through that company's organization and became an executive before opening Waffle House with Tom Forkner, who previously worked in real estate.

From the beginning, the founders' concept for Waffle House was to make comforting, simple food and serve it in a way that made patrons feel welcome. The original menu had only 16 items on it, and the restaurant was named after the most popular order: waffles (via ESPN). According to the Georgia Historical Society, Rogers and Forkner's initial dream involved opening just one location, but that didn't stop them from expanding relatively quickly once the original Waffle House became an overnight success. The second location opened only two years after the first, and by the 1960s, new locations started opening at a more rapid pace.

FEMA has a Waffle House Index for measuring disasters

Waffle House restaurants are all open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That commitment to staying open all the time even applies in areas that are suffering from natural disasters. Waffle House uses portable generators to keep restaurants running through power outages and studies its responses to previous disasters to learn how it can do better in the future (via Disaster Philanthropy). Staying open as much as possible helps give Waffle House customers a place of refuge in difficult times. It also allows the company's employees to continue earning money instead of losing wages to restaurant closures.

So if the Waffle House locations somewhere are planning to close, you can almost guarantee that the area will experience some scary weather. In fact, according to USA Today, Waffle House's emergency preparedness is so widely renowned that it spawned an unofficial way of measuring the severity of a natural disaster: the Waffle House Index. The Index was created by Craig Fugate, who was the FEMA administrator in 2011. The Waffle House Index is a three-color system. Green means all the Waffle Houses are operating fully and that you probably don't have to worry. Yellow means that Waffle House may have to run a limited menu or run off of generator power. Red means you should get out of town because all the Waffle Houses are closing down.

Waffle House has its own record label

When you think of what Waffle House sells, the mind naturally goes to classic comfort foods like grits, hash browns, and (of course) waffles. It might surprise you that the company has a side business that creates a very different product: recorded music.

It turns out that Waffle House has a record label, and the chain has been making music for quite some time. Per NPR, the record label was the brainchild of Joe Rogers Sr. and has been in operation since the mid-1980s. While all the songs reference Waffle House or food in some way, they're not exactly jingles. Instead, they're songs in a variety of popular genres that you wouldn't necessarily notice were Waffle House-specific unless you listened closely to the lyrics.

In the '80s, Waffle House's songs were pressed on real 45 rpm records and inserted into the jukeboxes in Waffle House restaurants. These days, they're still playing on Waffle House jukeboxes, but everything has gone digital. Unsurprisingly, the custom Waffle House songs aren't as popular as the other songs on the jukeboxes, but they do get played every once in a while. The chain has also made some music videos for some of its songs that you can view on the Waffle House website.

Some locations have been accused of racism

Waffle House has generated a lot of bad press related to alleged racism and gender discrimination. According to Funding Universe, in the period between 1995 and 2000, the company racked up over 90 lawsuits related to claims of sexual harassment and racism. In 2018, Bernice King, who is Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, called for customers to boycott Waffle House after a string of incidents, including two instances of police violence against black customers at Waffle House locations (via Inc.). Quartz has a list of racist allegations about Waffle House stretching back to 1984. The details of each case vary, but repeating patterns include black workers alleging unequal treatment and black customers being denied service, being made to feel unsafe, or not receiving the same level of service as white patrons. More recently, non-white customers at Waffle House locations in Florida and Georgia were allegedly subjected to racial slurs and threats.

Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. didn't view his business as racist. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004 that Waffle House served black civil rights protestors in the '60s during a time when many Atlanta-area businesses denied them service. It should be noted that the racist incidents discussed above all occurred at specific Waffle House locations and may not reflect the values of the company as a whole. However, the frequency and sheer number of the allegations is rather troubling.

There is a complex code for ordering hash browns

As a large and popular institution, Waffle House has created its own special culture. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the terminology used for ordering hash browns, which can be quite confusing to a Waffle House newcomer. You might not think of hash browns as being a complicated dish — aren't they just crispy shredded potatoes? You can order plain hash browns from Waffle House if you want, but the restaurant's fans love adding a wide variety of toppings to trick out their shredded spuds.

Each topping has its own special Waffle House-specific name. Plain hash browns are "scattered" because the potatoes are simply spread over the grill. Ordering "smothered" hash browns adds griddled onions. A slice of American Cheese makes them "covered." We could go on, but you can just read the whole list for yourself from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Our favorite customization is "country," which means the hash browns get coated in creamy sausage gravy. Waffle House reportedly says there are over 1.5 million possible hash brown variations you can order.

As reported by Garden & Gun, although the customized hash browns are now synonymous with Waffle House, they didn't become common until the 1980s. They were born in Atlanta-area Waffle Houses where line cooks would whip up their own magical hash brown creations as treats for themselves.

The workers communicate using condiments

The unique hash brown lingo isn't the only Waffle House communication innovation. The servers also give customer orders to the cooks in a surprising manner. Rather than simply calling out the orders verbally or relying on printed tickets to communicate what needs to be cooked, employees at Waffle House are trained to use something called the mark system (via ESPN).

The mark system uses objects like condiment packets, pickles, slices of bread, and utensils to tell the grill cooks what they need to cook next, with no talking or reading necessary. For example, a mustard packet face-up on a plate signals a pork chop, a butter packet means a waffle, and a packet of grape jelly means white toast. However, it gets even more complicated than that, because the position and orientation of the objects also changes their meaning. A grape jelly by itself means toast, but if it's on the right side of an oval plate, it means a sausage omelet. A mayo packet on top of a packet of jelly means eggs scrambled well, while an upside-down mayo packet on top of butter means a dark waffle. The fact that Waffle House griddle cooks are able to cook up food so quickly and accurately using this arcane system makes us even more impressed with them than we were before.

Waffle House loves cash

Waffle House has long resisted the move toward a cashless society. As Joe Rogers Sr. put it to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004, Waffle House's mission has always been "taking care of the poor old cash customer." The company didn't start accepting card payments until 2006, according to QSR Magazine.

Waffle House's commitment to cash doesn't stop with its customers, either. Reviews from Waffle House workers on job sites indicate that employees can also get paid in cash rather than check or direct deposit if they choose to. One Waffle House waitress on Glassdoor said, "you get paid weekly in cash." Another reviewer on the same site mentioned that they received their Christmas bonus in cash as well. It's the same story over at Indeed, where one former employee wrote, "We get paid in cash weekly by our managers at the store." Another employee said that workers who opted for direct deposit got paid on a different day than employees who accepted their pay in cash. We should note that the most recent of these reviews is from 2017, so there is a possibility that the company no longer offers cash compensation to employees.

It has many celebrity fans

The food at Waffle House may be simple, but it's tasty and it makes you feel good, so it shouldn't be a surprise that celebrities love the restaurant just as much as regular folks do. One of the most famous people to sing Waffle House's praises was Anthony Bourdain, who was introduced to the chain by chef Sean Brock. Anthony Bourdain loved Waffle House and waxed poetic about it during his visit, describing it in the way only he could: "Its warm, yellow glow, a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the South to come inside, a place of safety and nourishment" (via ESPN).

In addition to food celebrities, famous rappers have also frequently shouted out their love for Waffle House. A 2013 feature from First We Feast collects lyrical references to the chain in music from artists like Gucci Mane, 2Chainz, Future, and Jay Z. In 2019, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked a bunch of local rappers to name their favorite Waffle House orders, and they did not disappoint. Ludacris proclaimed his love for the patty melt, as did Lil Baby. All three members of Migos had their own favorites, with Quavo repping the All-Star Meal, Offset favoring the Texas Melt, and Takeoff opting for waffles with a pork chop on the side. Perhaps the strangest answer came from Lil Yachty, who said he liked to make a bacon, butter, and jelly sandwich on Texas toast.

Sometimes things can get a little rowdy

Videos of Waffle House fights are a known entity on the internet, so much so that you can even find Waffle House fight compilations on YouTube (warning: all the fight videos we link to include profanity and violence). We would like to point out that we don't think Waffle House is cultivating an unsafe environment. It just happens to operate thousands of restaurants that are open 24 hours a day, and in the wee small hours of the morning, you're bound to occasionally encounter people who are a little bit too inebriated and spoiling for a fight.

One thing you'll notice in several Waffle House fight videos is that when customers get violent, Waffle House employees can showcase some impressive fighting skills. The fighting prowess of Waffle House employees has been the subject of many jokes on Twitter. One user wrote, "Waffle House requires every employee to know how to fight specifically for moments like this." Another user jokingly claimed, "When you apply to Waffle House the only thing they ask is 'can you fight.'" And one basically summed up the internet's opinion when they stated, "Waffle House employees are the undefeated heavyweight champions of the world." Of course, nobody wants to experience violence at their place of work, and some of these fights look pretty scary, but it's hard not to root for the underdog Waffle House employees when they have to deal with unpleasant and violent people.

Waffle House doesn't do traditional advertising

Waffle House's incredible amount of success over the years is even more impressive when you learn that the company has almost entirely eschewed traditional forms of advertising. According to the Georgia Historical Society, Waffle House has never made many TV or radio commercials or print ads. Instead, as Funding Universe writes, people tend to learn about the chain from other people who love it.

In addition to the word-of-mouth marketing strategy, Waffle House also reels in customers by placing its restaurants (with their large, iconic, yellow signs), close to busy highways. Per Funding Universe, Waffle House expanded in tandem with the U.S. interstate highway system in the mid-20th century. With interstate highways bringing in steady streams of customers, the company was able to gradually open more and more restaurants across the American South. As America's roadside food options settled into a now-familiar landscape of fast food drive-thrus, Waffle House set itself apart by offering old-school diner service that has remained basically unchanged since its founding in 1955.

The workers get some nice perks

Working at Waffle House is a tough job in many respects. You often have to work nights, weekends, and holidays, the restaurant is frequently very busy, and the customers can sometimes get a little out of hand. It's certainly not a job for everyone, but the gig has some good perks, too.

Waffle House works hard to try to retain employees. It has been offering health insurance since the 1980s, which is something of a rarity in the restaurant industry (via FSR Magazine). It also promotes people, at every level of the business, exclusively from within, rather than hiring outsiders. The company offers stock options to employees, and cooks earn bonuses based on how much food they prepare each day. Perhaps most enticingly, managers are guaranteed a six days on, two days off work schedule. In an industry with notoriously unpredictable scheduling practices, this kind of stability is quite enticing. Both managers and hourly workers also get paid time off, another uncommon benefit in the service industry.