No 24-hour diner chain inspires quite the same cult following as Waffle House. Since its founding in Atlanta some 60 years ago, the restaurant has been elevated to cultural touchstone, now sprawling across 25 U.S. states with more than 2,000 locations.
Slinging humble breakfast fare around the clock, Waffle House inspires deep and unyielding loyalty in diners like few restaurant chains (except maybe Whataburger) can. Is it the cheap prices? The no-frills atmosphere? Those illustrious hash browns that somehow taste better when you’re intoxicated? The waitresses that inevitably call you “honey”? Likely some combination of all of the above, plus a little bit of that inexplicable Southern diner magic — call it the Waffle House je ne sais quoi.
The chain has inspired numerous books, including a first-person narrative from a former line cook titled As the Waffle Burns as well as one by a pastor called — naturally — The Gospel According to Waffle House. The chain, which claims to have sold its billionth waffle sometime in 2015, recently saw both of its founders, Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers Sr., die within just two months of one another. Here now, a look back at the legend, and for fans near and far, everything you need to know about Waffle House.
The first Waffle House made its debut in 1955 in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates. The vision: combine fast food, available 24 hours a day, with table service. Co-founder Forkner once explained how he and Rogers, who were neighbors, started the chain: “He said, ‘You build a restaurant and I’ll show you how to run it.’” They named it Waffle House because waffles were the most profitable menu item (and therefore, what they most wanted customers to order).
The company began franchising in 1960 and in the beginning grew slowly, but expansion picked up in the ’70s and ’80s. Its empire now spans across a full half of the 50 continental states, and though it’s concentrated in the South, Waffle Houses can be found as far north as Ohio and as far west as Arizona.
Waffle House remains a privately held company today — Rogers’s son, Joe Rogers Jr., is now the chairman — and does not disclose annual sales figures, but in 2005 the company claimed that it uses two percent of all eggs produced in the U.S.
The Secret Waffle House Language
Eating at Waffle House for the first time requires becoming versed in a new vernacular — what the hell does “scattered, smothered, and covered” mean? True Waffle House devotees have their hash brown orders committed to memory, but for everyone else, the menu translates each esoteric term: “Scattered” refers to spreading the hash browns out across the grill so they get crispy all around — otherwise, they’re cooked inside a steel ring — and is one of the mostly commonly heard terms thrown around at WH; many also order them “well-done.” The other topping options are smothered (sautéed onions), covered (melted American cheese), chunked (bits of ham), diced (tomatoes), peppered (jalapeños), capped (grilled mushrooms), topped (chili), or country (smothered in sausage gravy). Diners can also just say to hell with it and order them “all the way.”
Like most any other diner, orders at Waffle House are subject to plenty of customization, from the various egg preparations (over easy, scrambled, et al) to those signature hash browns. To ensure order accuracy and kitchen efficiency, Waffle House staff have their own highly esoteric visual coding system. By marking plates with butter pats, mini tubs of grape jelly, and other condiments such as mayo packets and pickles in various, highly specific arrangements, servers are able to communicate to cooks what food should be prepared for each plate. For example, to indicate an order of scrambled eggs with wheat toast, a tub of jelly is placed on a larger oval plate upside down at the six o'clock position. (Good luck memorizing this system unless you actually work there; the rest of us will simply have to look on with awe.)
Famous People Love Waffle House
Though Waffle House is prized as a refuge for the common people, plenty of celebrities have also pledged their allegiance. Prominently located just off busy interstates, Waffle House has played host to many traveling musicians and earned itself plenty of references: In the track “Welcome to Atlanta,” Jermaine Dupri raps, “After the party it's the Waffle House/If you ever been here you know what I’m talkin’ about.” At least one rap music video has been filmed in a Waffle House parking lot, and nineties sensation/current butt of endless jokes Hootie and the Blowfish have a cover album titled “Scattered, Smothered, and Covered.” Oddly enough, WH also has its own record label, breakfast-themed cuts (think “Make Mine With Cheese” and “There’s Raisins in My Toast”) from which can be heard playing on the jukeboxes that occupy each location.
Despite all his globe-trotting, Anthony Bourdain had apparently never patronized a Waffle House until 2016, when he accompanied Southern chef sensation Sean Brock on a late-night, post-bar feast. No one needs Bourdain to proselytize about the goodness that is Waffle House, but regardless, he had some poetic commentary to offer: “It is indeed marvelous — an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed.” (Brock also assembled the ultimate Waffle House tasting menu for Bourdain’s recently launched travel site, Explore Parts Unknown.)
Even the uber-rich and hyper-famous occasionally can’t resist making a Waffle House stop: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West once went on a double date there with Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. (Sadly, we still don’t know how Kanye orders his hash browns.)
The Dark Side of Waffle House
Though Waffle House is widely seen as a place where people from all different races and classes congregate — "Martin Luther King had a dream, and I think Waffle House was in it," musician John Mayer said in an interview with Waffle House’s corporate magazine — the reality isn’t always so pleasant: In a 2013 essay about labor and equality at Waffle House, writer Katie Rawson points out that “Since the 1990s Waffle House has had more than 20 cases of racial discrimination filed against the company. The majority of these cases involve white employees refusing to serve or harassing minority customers.”
Waffle House has also become notorious as a hotbed for bizarre crimes: Various locations have been the site of an employee allegedly spiking a co-worker’s drink with meth, a belligerent customer stripping naked and punching someone in the face, and, tragically, multiple fatal shootings.
Even celebrities seemingly can’t stay out of trouble at Waffle House: In 2007 Kid Rock was famously arrested for assault after getting into a fistfight at a restaurant in Atlanta. As Rawson notes, “The most common citation of Waffle House in newspapers is crime reports. The affiliation between Waffle House and crime is not surprising given that it is open 24 hours; the same criteria that lead to the openness and exchange of late-night hours also lead to violence.”
“It’s not that more of these stories happen at Waffle Houses," a company spokesperson told the New York Times in 2011. “It’s just getting more attention when it happens at a Waffle House.”
Even the Federal Government Leans on Waffle House
But the fact that Waffle House is literally always open is also part of what makes it so beloved. In fact, its restaurants close so rarely that at least one government agency uses the diners as a barometer for disaster recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency utilizes an informal “Waffle House Index” to determine the severity of a tropical storm or hurricane. In short, if a Waffle House closes that’s a sign to FEMA — and to the rest of us — that a storm was severe. Here are the three levels of the Waffle House Index, which is used to evaluate areas after a storm passes through:
Green: Waffle House is serving a full menu and electricity is on.
Yellow: Waffle House is serving a limited menu, may be low on food supplies, and is likely using an electrical generator.
Red: Waffle House is closed. (Oh shit, time to panic.)
Though both of Waffle House’s founders have been laid to rest, they’d already passed the torch: Rogers and Forkner stepped back from managing the company back in the ’70s, when Rogers’ son took over as CEO, and he continues to run the company today. Thanks to legions of loyal fans, pop culture references galore, and yes, even FEMA, the Waffle House legend will doubtlessly live on for decades more to come. After all, where else will people eat after the club closes?