Garrett A Wolfe – Duke University Class of 2020
As I pulled out of my driveway and turned onto Hillsborough Road, my mind ran endlessly. I drove along on the dark and desolate straightaway as the clock in the dash flashed 11 at night. I passed a still lit Food Lion, several closed car dealerships, and finally the extensive number of fast food stops off of U.S. Route 15 and the Durham Freeway illuminated by bright and colorful LED lights. Biscuitville, Arby’s, Chick-fil-a, Dunkin’ Donuts, Waffle House, Zaxby’s, The Dog House, Krispy Kreme, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Bojangles’, Dominos, Cookout, and Cracker Barrel can all be found on this 8/10 of a mile straight away on Hillsborough Road. But of all of them, only Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The U.S. based restaurant brand is even open on Christmas and New Year’s Day, inspiring urban myths that “Waffle House doors have no locks” . Even with all I’ve heard over the years from friends who swear by it, I’ve only been once. As a result, I wanted to do my own experiment. I wanted to stake out at Waffle House, this ubiquitous and universal restaurant chain that I know nothing about, in the hopes of learning something; something about Waffle House, about its employees and customers, maybe even something about myself, life, or society as a whole.
Pulling into the dimly lit parking lot accompanied by the impossible-to-miss Waffle House street sign, I thought back to my first introduction to the cultural phenomena that is Waffle House: Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis’s first stop on their haphazard adventure of a road trip in the movie Due Date (2010 – I was 10). The two of them share a meal and discuss their goals in life in a scene that shows off some of Waffle House’s most iconic features: the WH sign and entrance, the booths and their squishy red cushions, plates, dirty plastic cups, sticky syrup dispensers, and more. The scene cuts out when Galifianakis declares, after eating his waffle for several minutes, that he is in fact, allergic to waffles.
Walking in I notice the windows of the double door entrance are covered in WH promotional material. “America’s place to work, America’s place to eat,” it says prominently across the front window. Upon opening the door, I am greeted by the host, chef, waiter, bus-boy, and cleaner. Tonight, these people are one and the same. Brandon Hall, who I would soon become closely acquainted with, is somehow the only one working the 7PM-2AM shift. I walk across the iconic grease covered tiled floors and quietly take a seat alone at the high bar. The interior is embellished with WH’s black-yellow-grey color scheme and the walls are adorned with many black and white framed photographs of the franchise over the years. There aren’t any TV’s and there is no music other than the occasional Waffle House Records song (yes they have their own record label) played from a TouchTunes jukebox. The time is displayed on an analog clock just above the restrooms with 5 cameras dispersed on the ceiling throughout. As Brandon scrapes down a cast-iron pan in the sink in front of me, he congenially takes my order and spins around to begin preparing my All-Star Special, a Waffle House classic. Soon after meeting him, I’m intrigued at what has brought Brandon to Waffle House.
Brandon Hall was born April 24, 1985. He was raised in Durham, North Carolina and has been to 48 of the 50 states in the U.S. (missing Hawaii and Washington). He’s a father of three, has been married twice, and before being an employee of Waffle House, used to climb cell-towers for 7 years to install and update telecommunication technology. The highest tower he ever climbed was 600-feet on top of a 2600-foot mountain somewhere in West Virginia. Around five years ago he quit his job climbing cell-towers to get off the road and be with his family more often, a decision that cut his annual salary from $140,000 to $50,000 a year, something he finds himself thinking about quite often.
We continued to speak about his story, and I watched him interact with customers as they ordered and ate. While we spoke about his time at WH and his future, it became clear to me Waffle House was only stepping stone for him; he wanted to strive for more in his life.
“I’m getting too old to do this. About time to get back on the road… I thought about openin’ up my own restaurant to be honest with ya’. Thinking about doing the same thing Waffle House does and takin all their customers… Gotta start small. I’d have nothing but family cept for a few people that I consider family workin with me.”
He dreams of having a far more diverse menu than Waffle House’s and of preparing each dish according to the customers’ desires. Shrimp, steaks, BBQ, and more are all foods he thinks could be great menu items as he has quite a breadth of experience in cooking and has even entered multiple cooking competitions. The only thing left for him to solve is the name of his restaurant which he hopes to call after his trademarked secret sauce that he continues to refine: Awesome Sauce.
As Brandon tells me about the various struggles he is facing in his life, I can’t help but think about the multitude of problems of my own. I have two papers due in a week, a final to study for, I didn’t get a good workout in today, I have a Christmas party to plan that’s quickly approaching, and I need to clean my room and duplicate my house key. In essence, my problems pale in comparison to Brandon’s, yet somehow they’re all I can think about.
As students at Duke we are bred to only focus on a few things: doing well in school, getting a job, going out each weekend, and a handful more. I find myself constantly thinking about the next assignment, the next time I will go to the gym, the next time I will have a midterm, the next party or next time I will go out, and that if I don’t meet these goals, my world will cave-in. It’s a vicious cycle that only occurs in college and as much as we are learning and growing and changing, it’s isolating us further from the real people and very real problems occurring in the periphery of our “Duke Goggles”. As a result, we lose sight of what really matters and the ability to relate to others as our sometimes-immaterial problems can consume us entirely.
For the most part, many of us are haunted by these nominal and materialistic problems that don’t drastically affect us or our futures. Yet we still act like these problems are our end all, be all. But as I listen to Brandon, the adversity and choices he makes every day as a real person in light of his second wife, his children, and his own happiness, it helps me put into perspective my issues, and respect that there is more to life than just what we are exposed to in our small Duke bubble.
With one high bar with stools, one low bar with seats, and 8 booths, the restaurant is small in area but can accommodate plenty at its peak hours, especially late at night during the weekends. I was just glad for Brandon’s sake it wasn’t a late night during the weekend when intoxicated Durhamites and college students flood the spot to satiate their drunken hunger. Brandon was recording one to-go order, taking 3 dine-in orders, and was cleaning the dishes of a family that had just finished their meal, all while preparing mine. He quickly slid around the employee bullpen with ease in a pair of old black Nike sneakers.
Just 4 minutes and 49 seconds after he had taken my order, my waffle arrived out of the iron, perfectly golden, with a fresh Waffle House logo printed on its face with a cream packet on the side. The sweet smell of freshly cooked dough emanated from the golden solid in front of me and a neuron in my brain quickly fired, yearning me to ask for some maple syrup. And just then, before I could even ask, there it was placed before me. He smiled and sped off back to the grill. I lifted the dispenser only to realize it was sticky as could-be, but I still poured the sappy sweet serum onto my piping hot waffle. I sipped some water from one of those classic, thick, translucent, grey plastic cups from the early 2000s and licked the syrup off each one of my fingers. Just 15 seconds after the waffle, my scrambled eggs, crispy hash browns, and four buttered and golden-brown slices of bread arrived in front of me along with my three pieces of bacon. For the speed, size, and service of the meal Brandon whipped together, the grand total of $8.06 was a steal.
As Brandon continued his lone shift, a plethora of people began making their late-night food runs as they parked their cars, jumped out of Ubers, and came inside the warm establishment. In the hours that passed, nine Durhamites, two NC central students, one group of six Duke students, two off-duty workers, and many, many more came to Waffle House to eat, drink, talk, and spend time with one another. It is a melting pot of people, races, ages, affiliations and more. Each customer takes their seat, waits to have their order taken, converses with Brandon and any accompanying guests, eats, pays, and then leaves peacefully. Brandon takes his time with each one to ensure they are happy with their meal and their experience. Some guests in distinct parties interact not only with Brandon, but with one another. A middle-aged gentleman who works at UPS comes to WH daily to get his routine after-work fix, a group of Dukies arrive to procrastinate their schoolwork, NC Central students eat and discuss post-grad recruiting, and several families come with children to get a quick breakfast for dinner.
I didn’t understand how so many people could come on a random Monday night. Don’t get me wrong, Waffle House’s food is good, but it is no Michelin Star restaurant. What’s more, it doesn’t claim to be either. For the most part, people don’t come to Waffle House for the food. There is better food, faster and more convenient food, and cheaper food all throughout Durham. Each person comes to Waffle House for the Waffle House experience, the unparalleled customer service that they receive, a core value found at the very center of Waffle House’s being.
It’s difficult to characterize the essence of this Waffle House experience, the people who work at Waffle House, or the various customers that frequent it without some context of Waffle House and its history. Waffle House was founded by two men, Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner in an Atlanta suburb on Labor Day Weekend in 1955. The two came together to create something they thought America was lacking: “combin[ing] the speed of fast food with table service with around-the-clock availability” . The service a customer receives at Waffle House is its largest redeeming quality and is absolutely central to its success as a franchise. Rogers is even quoted as saying, “We are not in the food business… We’re in the People business.” 
Since its founding, Waffle House has become a pop culture icon. It is the inspiration behind many movie scenes, lyrics in songs, comedy routines, and more that laud the chain for its family-like ambiance and environment. Waffle Houses are so prominent, it does not even advertise, nor does it need to. Its employees, traditions, and food speak for themselves. WH serves 2% of all the eggs in America each year and although it claims to be the world’s leading seller of waffles (in addition to ham, pork chops, grits and T-bone steaks), there is nothing pretentious or exclusive about Waffle House . The menu is extremely simple and straightforward. There are dirty dishes left on the tables and piling up in the sink. There’s grease on the floor and syrup residue on 80% of the surfaces. One comedian jokes in a hysterical reaction video that Waffle House’s lack of cleanliness and failure of a health inspection in Atlanta is far from a surprise because Waffle House doesn’t claim to be something it’s not. They serve anyone, any time of day. They welcome “a diverse clientele of, not only happy families and young lovers, but also the lonely, the deranged, and especially the intoxicated” . The chain is so dedicated to providing a consistent source of community and service that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a subsect of the Department of Homeland Security, has created the Waffle House Index based on up and running WH locations to measure the effects of storms/disasters nationwide and necessary emergency response.
In today’s world, technology seems to make just about everything more efficient, faster, cheaper, and easier. Society values food that can be ordered instantaneously, to your door, in a second’s notice. No waiting in lines, writing down orders, sitting down and asking to be served, processing credit cards, or waiting for food to be prepared. Whether it be through UberEats, PostMates, DoorDash, or others, the food industry is consistently getting more of its revenues from on-demand delivery segments, and even sending some dine-in restaurants out of business. Having to speak, let alone interact with a human in the process of getting our food, for some, has become a task they no longer are interested in wasting their time doing. Speed and convenience are in, and unfortunately face to face customer service and interaction are out.
This desire to get food instantly, without the inconvenience of human interaction speaks to a larger topic in society today as technology continues to grow in its presence in our everyday lives. Our phones, TVs, cars, speakers, kitchens, lights, thermostats and more are all “smart” and can be controlled with the tap of a phone or even our voices. People walk with their heads down looking at their phones, scroll on the various social media outlets for hours on end, lose sleep watching at-your-fingertips streamable content, and more. Technology is all consuming, and it is destroying the very fabrics of human interaction that make human contact and experiences so unique and special. Our values are changing and as a result we are losing the very intimacy, personability, and charm that inspired sit-down restaurants in the first place! However, in a world where technology caters to this convenience and speed, Waffle House stays true to its values with a loyal customer base that appreciates customer-service and intimate human interaction as well.
On this lone and long late-night shift, even as Brandon sped around the restaurant to handle everyone’s needs, other people chose to help out too. One family with small children stacked their dirty dishes for him to easily collect, while the group of Duke students offered to fill their cups with drinks themselves, letting Brandon focus on other tasks at hand. Individuals, families, friends, and groups spend hours, sometimes several times a week (and even several meals a day) at Waffle House for the customer experience, the nature and environment of the restaurant that make it feel now more than ever, distinctly human.
Finally, the clock struck 2AM. A feeling of relief came over me since Brandon would finally get a break from handling everything himself. To my disappointment, when he came out of the storage room he told me that upper management needed him to stay. Thankfully, he would be joined by an employee they’re sending from the Ninth Street location. At 2:14 AM, a cab pulls into the lot, and a young, orange haired lady steps out. She has a nose ring on her left nostril, a silver chain around her neck, a WH branded visor, and a face full of freckles. Brandon smiles huge as she approaches and just before she enters, he offers to me:
“Now this is a good server right here, she’s young… Love her to death… She’s the only person I can trust here: absolutely trust. I can leave all my money in front of [her] and never have an issue. If [she] needs something and know I got it, I’ll give it to [her]…If [she] got something I need, it’s the same way. It’s family”.
I ask him:
“How long have you known her.” He responds:
“Maybe about a year almost? And I can say [she’s] family… That’s crazy”
I watch as Lauren, this upbeat and sweet woman checks herself into work and prepares the kitchen. She then gets started on a customer’s meal as we talk. Lauren was first introduced to Brandon when he brought his kids over to hang out with Lauren’s aunt’s kids. She’s known him 10 months since, and they’ve spent a lot of time getting to know each other at and outside of work. She opens up about her experiences at Waffle House, what she thinks of the job, and what she thinks of other employees at the Hillsborough location. Then she talks about two women who were best friends that were hired together when she first started.
“They were put on the same shifts and everything. Like that’s just asking for trouble… Just being lazy, doing nothing, starting fights with people. And then when one of them gets into it with someone, the other one is gonna jump in too, just because they’re friends.”
I watch and reflect as people shuffled in and out of Waffle House eating together, talking together, and spending time together. No two groups seem to be the same: their personalities, their orders, their appearances… As Lauren described these two girls, best friends, who came in together, who wanted to work at Waffle House together during the same shifts, and who ended up being unproductive and causing more harm than good, I couldn’t help thinking about my own life and the people I surround myself with. Each and every day I wake up to my 4 best friends that I live with. We share a coffee and an egg breakfast together and drive to campus together. With more friends, we go to class together and eat lunch together. We workout together, do homework and study together, eat dinner together, and go out together. I can’t help but think, are we doing more harm than good doing everything, just us, together?
As an angsty teenager in high school I really wanted to escape the vanilla, carbon-copy environment that was my hometown. My entire life, I had gone to school, played sports, and spent time with the same people. And for the most part, they were all just like me. I was drooling at the thought of getting a taste of something different, of learning from people who were different, who looked different, and thought differently than me.
Duke, like most universities nowadays, is a diverse institution in curriculum and in its student body that inspires growth, change, and reflection. After arriving here, it is no question that Duke is just that. But with time, it is human nature to want to belong to something bigger than just ourselves, a collective group that makes us feel comfortable and at home: whether it be friend groups, student groups, Greek organizations, or others. And with years of spending time and associating with these exclusive groups throughout college, those same people, that at first were a new experience for us through their diverse personalities, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, are now within our comfort zones. Whether we initially intended to or not, we have limited ourselves from continuing to learn and grow through this group exclusivity, blinding us from the other people, other ideas, and other perspectives embodied in those that walk around Duke, waiting to be met.
With three and a half years of Duke under my belt, walking into this Waffle House without any knowledge of the people or perspectives congregated inside was a small window into that very simple yet important message: Finding the place we belong is an important part of life, but to continue to learn and grow, we must take initiative and put in genuine effort to expose ourselves to people outside of our circles.
I finished the last bit of grits on my plate and made sure my dish was clean, staring at my phone chockfull with missed notifications. It was 3:52AM and time to call it a night, I had lots to do the next day.
As a college student, it is not uncommon to get caught up in the heat of the various academic, social, and professional struggles one may face. Nor is this a bad thing; it is important in life wherever you are to have priorities and goals, to care about something. But it is also even more important to keep yourself grounded and to have perspective, working to not lose sight of what really matters. I hopped down from the high-bar and strolled over to the register to pay for my food. As I said my goodbyes to locals and employees that just a few hours ago I didn’t know at all, I made my way towards the door and realized I was leaving Waffle House not with the information I thought I would. The most interesting takeaways were not the crazy stories that people had to tell or wild things I had heard, but rather the perspective I feel I gained from the very ordinary and human nature of the cultural icon known as Waffle House.