In the Waffle House parking lot, a young guy stands near the door smoking a cigarette. It's dark, either very early or very late depending on your perspective. The guy is wearing baggy clothes, his hair cut short. He seems agitated, his jaw clenched, the drags on his smoke made in short jerky movements, perhaps working out the lingering effects of whatever he got into last night.
"Welcome to Waffle House," comes the familiar call from many voices as I walk though the door.
I slide into the unyielding yellow seat of a booth. It's 5 a.m. and this will be my home for the next 22 hours.
The Waffle House on Cheshire Bridge Road opened in 1980. It is unit number 412, the restaurants being numbered in the order in which they opened. (There are now almost 1,600 locations in 25 states.) It sits perched just near the corner of Lavista Road, across the street from the Landmark Diner. At 30 years old, it's a reflection of the strange longevity of Cheshire Bridge Road businesses. The street, which runs one and a half miles from Piedmont Avenue just north of Midtown all the way up to the mouth of Buford Highway near Buckhead, has always fascinated me. Why do restaurants here survive for so long? The Colonnade, Nakato, Little Bangkok, the dueling red-sauce mainstays of Alfredo's and Nino's, all set among the sex shops and strip clubs, the liquor stores and thrift outlets, the low-rent motels and drag queen hangouts. Cheshire Bridge has a personality that veers wildly between depressing and lovable, shabby sleaze and vintage charm. As such, Waffle House fits right in.
As the sun begins to rise, the morning crew is just relieving the overnighters. In Waffle House parlance, this crew is known as first shift. This early, the waitresses do the cooking themselves. My first waitress is Melissa, a young woman pretty enough to make her hairnet look fly. I stall for a bit, saying I have someone who's meeting me, then order a pecan waffle and hash browns, smothered. I drink coffee and more coffee. The waitresses gossip at the end of the counter. Just before the sun rises, a young guy carrying groceries comes in to talk to one of the waitresses. As he leaves he calls to her, "I love you!"
"I love you," she calls back.
"I love you more," he says. From the parking lot, under the streetlight, he stops to turn and blow her kisses.
Waffle House was founded in 1955 by Joe Rodgers and Tom Forkner. Both men are still alive, now in their 90s. The company is different from other restaurant chains. It does no advertising. Its marketing department is set up as much to protect the brand as it is to push it, and the company is wary of media attention. And yet, Waffle House is ingrained in our city's cultural lexicon far more firmly than other local brands. From the scene in ATL in which R&B singer Monica is cast as a Waffle House waitress, to local teen rap group Travis Porter's viral video about drunkenly asking, "What comes on a sausage biscuit?" to countless other pop culture references, Waffle House is part of how we define ourselves.
The first Waffle House opened in Avondale Estates. That location is now the Waffle House museum and is open to the public once a month. The restaurant part of the museum is set up as it was in 1955, and a small building next door holds memorabilia. It's no World of Coke.
As a hometown brand, Waffle House is far more regional than Coca-Cola. Driving south from the Northeast, or east from the West, signs for Waffle House along the interstate let you know you're home. There's something about the interior of a Waffle House that's comfortingly bland, like the vibe of a crappy motel room. You could be anywhere. Those round light fixtures, the yellow and white tiles, the counter with its plastic-backed stools. Waffle House excels at making each location feel almost exactly like all the others. The food is what it is: Cheap. (Did you know you can add a second waffle to your order for 99 cents? Did you know that a grilled cheese costs $1.90?) But I don't think many people come to Waffle House for the food. I think they come for the comfort of sameness.
At around 8 a.m., a shift manager who's also the morning line cook comes on duty. Almost immediately, he and one of the waitresses get into a heated exchange. It's the woman whose boyfriend had just been blowing her kisses. They keep their voices down, low enough so I can't hear the substance of the argument. She disappears into the back. A while later she storms out into the dining room, saying, "You gonna fire me for that? Uh-uh. That ain't right." Eventually she returns to the back, and then a police officer shows up. Melissa, my waitress, smiles and acts as though nothing is going on. The fired waitress leaves, without needing the police escort it seems had been summoned. (I'm later informed that the firing didn't stick, but the waitress was reassigned to a different location.)