Over time, over easy: Waffle House melts into memories

By Ben Smith

Unlike the Southern cult(ure) that it represents, the Waffle House Museum in Avondale Estates is only open twice a year. Saturday was one of those special days. I drive by the museum all the time but, like the chain itself, it’s so much part of our landscape that who pauses to consider what it’s accomplished?

Waffle House 1964

Unit 1 in 1964, nine years after the first Waffle House Restaurant opened at the corner of Sam’s Crossing and College Ave. Credit: Waffle House

This day—the 21,642nd day of continuous Waffle House service—I paused to celebrate the kitschy regional eatery that has inspired country songwriters and served as a backdrop for movies. Let’s agree that few other businesses, much less restaurants, and none in wrecking-ball Atlanta, have any record close to this. Then consider that we live in an era where we can connect to people and information any time we want, but at least in Atlanta, hot food served by a real person 24/7/365 is still rare.

No Christmas dinner plans? Consider this a head’s up.

Unit 1

The museum marks where the streak began; by the time its doors closed, the rest of the chain kept on cooking.

The museum, known as Waffle House Unit 1, is the very first restaurant opened by co-founders Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner, who likely never dreamed they had created a culinary cultural icon.

It was Sept. 5, 1955 when Waffle House turned the key here. “Rock around the Clock” was the nation’s No. 1 song. Bill Haley’s song quickly fell from the top of the charts, but WaHo kept knocking out diner fare.

Oliver Martinez

Oliver Martinez of Decatur pretends to be a short order cook at the museum grill.

When Unit 1 closed in 1973, the restaurant was replaced by a Chinese take out. Forkner and Rogers reclaimed the property in 2008, reopening it as a museum that opens only on Labor Day, in early December, for tours on request and special events (with catering provided by the Unit 1,000 Waffle House down the street.) The museum has hosted reunions and even wedding receptions.

There are currently 1,756 Waffle Houses in operation in the U.S., according to company spokeswoman Kelly Thrasher. The chain reaches as far west as Arizona and as far north as Pennsylvania, Thrasher said at the museum opening.

Round the clock service is a company imperative. “We won’t go into an area that won’t allow us to stay open for 24 hours,” said Thrasher.

Amid the hours and years and decades, moments stand out

Showing up is 80 percent of life, Woody Allen said; Waffle House has shown up 100 percent of the past six decades. That continuity produced customer memories that have turned the chain into part of Southern culture. For at least two generations, Waffle House has always been open.

cutout

Oliver Martinez and wife, Yelis Prietro, pose for a kitschy photo cut-out at the museum.

Mike Parker says the museum’s restaurant looks just as he remembers when he frequented it with his dad. Parker, 53, is a lifelong resident of Avondale Estates and a faithful Waffle House customer all his life.

The 1950s-era fixtures appear genuine as does the menu, which includes filet mignon for $1.50, hash browns at 20 cents, a cheeseburger for 35 cents and salads at 30 cents. Even today, Parker said, “It’s good hot food and friendly service. The value menu is a good buy.”

As Parker treated himself to a second waffle courtesy of company employees who set up grills for visitors at the museum annex, I asked him what else had changed. “The melting neon sign that was lit up so bright every night,” he said.

Another vivid memory was a Valentine’s Day at Unit 1000. The store had used decorations to turn the interiors lights to red. “It was kind of weird, but interesting,” Parker said.

The lure of the open door

Post Toasties

1950s era boxes of Post Toasties. The cereal was discontinued in 2006. Kelloggs reintroduced it in 2010.

Along with the open door policy, Waffle House kept a low-key, unpretentious atmosphere that continues drawing newcomers. Thrasher said the company doesn’t worry too much how it looks: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We know we’re that kind of culty kind of restaurant. Everybody has a story about Waffle House.”For Oliver Martinez, a native Venezuelan who lives in Decatur, Waffle House was one of his first genuinely American experiences. His first Waffle House experience was in 1997 during a visit to the Supershow in Atlanta. He became a frequent diner after moving to Monroe, Ga., in 2008.

“I love Waffle House,” Martinez said. “There’s nothing like this in Venezuela.”

Martinez said he’s a fan of the sausage, eggs and waffles. But what he likes most about Waffle House was what millions of other diners have experienced: “I can have breakfast there whenever I want. It’s open 24 hours. That’s pretty amazing.”

As he spoke, more time ticked away. Across the South and beyond, a Waffle House was still serving it scattered, smothered and covered each minute of every day—519,408 hours straight and still going strong.

Ben Smith can be reached at [email protected]

 

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.

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