ATLANTA - It’s well past midnight and a movie theater manager sits down to supper after his shift. A couple nearby sips coffee. In walk two women who have, in all fairness, seen better days, their jeans worn thin, their hair matted.
The women don’t even merit a stare. This is Waffle House.
This is where college professors and construction workers sit side-by-side at yellow counters. It’s a 24-hour diner where the coffee’s always on, the grits always bubbling. It’s where hungry folks from all walks have been coming for 50 years to get cheap, hot food that’s become as familiar as the matter-of-fact greeting:
“Hey ... what y’all havin’?”
There are 1,500 Waffle Houses spread across 25 states, as far west as Arizona and as far north as Illinois, but the chain is still rooted deeply in the South and retains a distinctively down-home, blue-collar aura.
Maybe it’s the simple menu anchored by eggs, grits and hash browns “smothered and covered” in cheese and onions, the firm cash-only policy or the fact it serves most meals for under $5. It somehow feels like breakfast at Grandma’s house — before she started worrying about her cholesterol.
“You know at every (highway) exit there’s a simmering pot of grits waiting for you,” said John Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. “Waffle House is a company that manages to be a national presence that still generates local pride, and that’s tough to do. Boysenberry syrup from IHOP is not in our vernacular.”
But such warm feelings have been tempered in recent years by accusations of racism.
Lawsuits In January, black customers from four Southern states filed federal lawsuits claiming that Waffle House servers announced they wouldn’t serve blacks, deliberately served unsanitary food to minority patrons, directed racial epithets at blacks and became verbally abusive when asked to wait on blacks.
Dozens of plaintiffs have made similar claims in the last decade. This month, the operator of Waffle Houses in Virginia settled lawsuits with 12 customers, including black, Asian-American and Hispanic patrons, who said they were treated rudely.
Waffle House executives insist they’ve been sued only because they’re a big company and they’re quick to point out that the restaurant was among the first eateries to integrate after its founding in 1950s Atlanta.
“We serve all races,” said co-founder Joe Rogers. “We’re just a target. We’re not guilty and never have been.”
Waffle House started in September 1955 after Rogers, then a regional manager for a now-defunct diner chain out of Memphis, Tenn., walked up to a real estate agent who lived two doors down and proposed a partnership.
Rogers knew fast-food shops like McDonald’s were just starting and he had an idea for an in-between, a sit-down restaurant that rivaled the speed of drive-ins.
“He said, ’You build a restaurant and I’ll show you how to run it,”’ recalled Tom Forkner, Waffle House’s other founder.