Man, I was more broke than Korea. The spare change under my Salvation Army sofa cushion was going fast. It was obvious I needed a job, and since I already ate most of my meals at Waffle House, I figured I might as well work there, paper hats be damned.
You know the Waffle House. It’s 3 a.m., you’re drunker than Charles Bukowski in the middle of an epic poem about being drunk, and “hungry like the wolf.” Where else you gonna go in a town that kills the lights at 10 p.m.?
There are more than a hundred Waffle Houses in North Carolina alone, most conveniently located right off our education-be-damned interstates, and all sporting glorious, fluorescent-yellow signs that beckon to the weary traveler like Ms. Liberty herself. Cheap date? Cup of coffee? Short-order-cook groupie? Syrup addiction? Waffle House.
How hard could it possibly be to get a job at a Waffle House?, I asked myself. At most restaurants — and all fast-food joints — the turnover is such that, after a month or so, you become the grease-stained, hardened veteran whom the rosy-cheeked new employees ask, “Do we even have unsweetened tea?”
Into the Weaverville “House,” then, I confidently strode, dress shirt properly buttoned — expecting to be treated as the savior, and wondering whether I might get started that same afternoon. “We don’t really have anything right now, but you can fill out an application, in case anything opens up,” the manager told me. In case anything opens up? What is this, Merrill Lynch? On to the Tunnel Road House. Again, no dice. The long drive out to the Smokey Park Highway House gave me plenty of time to reflect on the years and money spent obtaining that college degree.
“Well, I might be able to use you on the weekends, to start,” said the Smokey Park manager. “And you can probably get more time later on, if somebody leaves.” As I started to fill out the application, I asked the manager why it was so hard to get steady Waffle House work. As it turns out, Waffle House offers employees not only benefits like insurance and paid vacations, but also stock in the company. Among the three waitresses balancing plates from fingertips to shoulder right in front of me, the least experienced had three years on the job; the most senior was a 15-year veteran who told me she’d started right after the place opened. That was the last thing I remember her saying before my mind seized up, realizing the application had a math section.
Unlike other restaurants, the House doesn’t tally its bills on a computer. Instead, the waitress memorizes the price of each dish and then totals all the numbers herself, without the aid of technology. And let me tell you, figuring the tax is a bitch. Waffle House Tip #1: If the other waitresses’ numerical skills are anything like mine, your bill is wrong. Euclid I am not.
God only knows how I did on the math part, but I couldn’t wait to redeem myself by ripping through the verbal section. It turned out to consist of just one question, however, which — like a “one hand clapping” Zen koan — seemed more designed to lock up one’s brain than to allow a ready answer. (Reading test: “… established the Waffle House tradition of serving ‘Good Food Fast’ in a warm, friendly environment.” Question: “Waffle House has a tradition of serving 1)_______, 2)_______, 3)_______.” Sure, “good food fast” is the logical way to fill those three blanks — but what about the “warm, friendly environment”?) I was tempted to write “Ask Marilyn,” the woman with the world’s highest recorded IQ (who has chosen to devote her superhuman intelligence to a syndicated newspaper column that solves brain teasers submitted by bored Nebraska housewives).
But somehow, despite probably flunking the Waffle House application like an 8 a.m. Spanish class, I was actually offered employment — as a cook. That’s how it is at the Waffle House: The men cook, and the women serve. But I craved the daily cash, the lively interactions with the customers (not to mention my dislike of splattering pig ooze), so I requested to train as a waiter. Now, as the only male waiter at the Smokey Park Highway House, I like to compare my experience with those of Shannon Faulkner and Jackie Robinson (the cooks quickly began calling me “Wilma”).
Before my training could officially begin, I had to sign a sheet promising to work Christmas Eve and Christmas, the two busiest days of the year. As each fresh napkin boldly reiterates, the House is “open 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.” When you factor in that the House is open 24 hours a day, you realize that they’re never, ever closed. Let’s see the Japanese try and top that!
Waitress training takes three days, which was about two-and-a-half more than I figured I would need. Of course, by the end of day three, I still couldn’t, as a fellow worker keenly observed, “tell my ass from my elbow.” Indeed, for a new employee, the work is as hectic and grueling as trying to follow a William Faulkner paragraph to its logical conclusion. Each waitress is assigned three booths or a counter. First, you must set the silverware, fetch the drinks, take the food orders and then call the orders in to the cook. Listening to the waitresses rapidly yell out the orders is reason enough to go to the Waffle House — “I have a pork chops and eggs, scrambled, order over light, dry, scattered, smothered and covered!” Now that’s art.
The cooks never see the written order, relying solely on the waitresses’ rapid-fire calls. Even with four orders going at once, the cooks rarely make a mistake: The dry toast is dry, and the patty melt is indeed medium rare. It should come as no surprise, then, that numbers of young women gather daily at the counter to pay homage to the magnificence of the man with a spatula in his hand and a grease tear in his eye.
Besides serving food and drinks, Waffle House waitresses listen to customers’ complaints, free of charge. Don’t ask me why, but Waffle House customers bitch like a Duke basketball coach (inebriation could be a factor, in many cases.) They’re eating at the Waffle House, yet expecting a dining experience a la La Patisserie (that’s French). Three-fourths of the way through the meal, they’ll call you over to inspect their egg yolks, which apparently aren’t quite the right shade of yellow. “You didn’t bring me my ham at the same time as my hash browns, so I’m not paying for either,” is a popular battle cry (no matter that the items arrived 20 seconds apart).
Waffle House Rule #17: The more people there are waiting for tables, the more cups of coffee and cigarettes the satisfied diners sit and suck up, oblivious. And when they finally rise, the next customers replace them before you even have a chance to clear the table. Worse yet, Waffle House waitresses must not only clear their own tables, but also wash all their own dishes, which is often the main source of antagonism amongst employees. Invariably, one waitress will dump her dirty dishes in the sink beneath the main eating counter, and then just leave them there. Unless someone does them for her, dishes start to pile up, fingers start to point, and tempers rise: “D—- it, Willie, are you going to do anything today?”
The most important lesson I’ve learned at the House (other than the fact that waffles are not a low-fat food) is that you’ll never know who’ll turn out to be a big tipper. Generally speaking, young people tip well; with everyone else, there’s just no telling. Grumpy people might tip high, while the rich traveler tosses you some change.
I will go on record, though, as saying that 75 percent of the stiffers are elderly, low-income customers. Whether they don’t have the money, don’t understand the importance of tipping, or merely forget, is open to debate. Then again, other older people will turn out to be your best tippers — which is not saying much, as the average tip is usually around 10 percent on a $10 check. The worst are the guys who leave a dollar for an 84-cent cup of coffee and then have the audacity to tell you, grandly, to “keep the change” — all 16 cents of it. The best tippers, by far, are the Waffle House regulars, of whom there are many. Day after day, they order the exact same meal.
So far I’ve said nothing about the third shift — which Waffle House workers would just as soon forget. Let’s just say that every weekend (and many weekdays, ’round about 2 a.m.), every drunk in western North Carolina seems to sit in there, puffing cigarettes and trying to keep their eggs down. Needless to say, it can get ugly — especially when the drunks have quarters for the jukebox. (“Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Bob Seeger is the hands-down favorite, played nearly twice as much as its nearest competitor. And the pleas to remove “Macarena” from the box have been duly laughed off; the song continues to be played ad nauseam.)
Speaking of nauseam, Waffle House is one of the few restaurants that allow their customers to smoke. And smoke they do. Some seem to come to Waffle House just so they can smoke while they eat. And all the waitresses, cooks, managers and district managers seem to enjoy tobacco products, too. In fact, everyone I’ve ever met who was even remotely associated with the House smoked.
And all that smoke just sits there, lingering throughout the restaurant, telling California to go to hell. It takes at least 15 minutes in the shower — while dreaming of future litigation riches paid as compensation for the ravages of second-hand smoke — to remove the Marlboro fumes (not to mention the animal grease) from one’s flesh.
But it’s all well worth it: free waffles, free shirts, the chance to maybe date a Waffle House cook or waitress, drunken gossip — and, most importantly, those stock options.
Granted, Waffle House is already big, but it just might be on the verge of exploding into every community in America. In this day and age, each town in this great land is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the next, especially when it comes to dining options. The main strip in Statesville (North Carolina’s other All-America City), for example, is eerily identical to Tunnel Road. But the all-night-diner market — unlike the steakhouse, burger, bagel, chicken and sandwich markets — has not been completely cornered yet.
So much the better for the low-priced, cooked-to-order, never-closing Waffle House. First, the House will squat at every interstate exit in America; then, it’ll spread into your very neighborhood, taking out every Mom ‘n’ Pop that tries to resist “progress.”
Waffle House is inevitable and cannot be stopped: We have seen the future, and it is Waffle House. (And don’t forget: You read it here, first.)