I never met Alex Schoenbaum (1915-1996) but I did meet his son Raymond. Ray loomed over me and had the shortest attention span of any adult human I have ever met, including my father. He made ADD look like narcolepsy. Raymond carried a wireless stock monitor, with a long silver antenna, that looked like a 1960’s transistor radio, except that this was 1992 and he was watching it instead of listening (to me). He eventually explained that he was speculating in foreign currency, making him a Southern, leg jiggling, mobile, behemoth arbitrageur. I can’t imagine that there were many others like him.
In between glances at currency rates he mentioned a new restaurant concept he was pondering. His father co-founded Shoneys, and Raymond was eventually named Chairman of the Board but for years he was involved in other restaurant chains, Wendys, among others. I seem to remember that he even sued the board of Shoneys over something (maybe to be named Chairman), so Oedipus move over... Shoneys is not just a great restaurant, but it seemed to us, as creatures of the road, to be the most integrated place in Tennessee. At every Shoneys it was as though one had finally entered a city, with every combination of race, sex and religion dining together, often at the same table, on a multicultural buffet that included bacon and grits, pudding and cantaloupe.
Shoneys (the name was chosen in a company contest) is evidently a great place to work and to eat. Restaurants, in the south (and this was in Al Gore’s state) are a stepping stone, or maybe the only stone, for blacks and undereducated whites. And clearly this reputation creates a clientele of similar composition. I even suspect that the buffet (championed by Shoneys for every meal, including breakfast) was a way to sidestep literacy issues without embarrassment to anyone. This is not just noblesse oblige, but marketing genius.
And then there was Waffle House.
Waffle House, maybe the most ubiquitous roadside restaurant in the south (there are 27 of them along the Tennessee stretch of I40), is only slightly larger than its sign. It is a model of efficiency, eschewing serifs, paper menus and advertising. Open 24 hours, and on Christmas (as we discovered) it has a logo that could only have been ‘designed’ by a signmaker (this is the old school way to design) and has never changed. Each capital letter is housed in a separate square yellow box (a waffle?) making it easy to manufacture (each letter is the same unit) and indelibly generic. Even though WAFFLE and HOUSE have different letter counts they sometimes stack equally, sometimes in a ‘brick’ pattern, sometimes flush left, etc. No two signs are alike, but they all seem exactly alike; the holy grail of Corporate Identity. In fact, every single restaurant looks like it was built in 1955 (when the chain started) and has never been changed. How can you change a restaurant that never closes? The impression is that they have been open continuously since 1955. [Steven Wright says that when he saw his local ‘open 24 hours’ store locking up one night they responded “not in a row”.]
A Waffle House interior is a medley of tile and Formica. The sheer number of different Formica wood patterns used is impressive, and the commitment to the material is unabashed. There is a great two tone (wood) detail in the counter that gives a very clear boundary to each counter diner; sort of a wooden placemat.
In spite of the name, Waffle House is not just waffles [The number one Waffle House item sold is coffee. Waffles are number three, right after hashbrowns]. Waffles are a small part of the Unique American Phenomenon™, Good Food Fast® offering. I could eat every meal at Waffle House, but then I would die an early and wheezing death. [“If you stack all of the Jimmy Dean sausage patties Waffle House sells in one day, the stack would be as tall as the Empire State Building.”] The food preparation is done entirely in front of you on a cooking line that is deceptively simply, but obviously honed for production. Waitresses ‘call out’ (“can I call out now?”) orders in rotation, allowing the line to complete one waitress's order at a time. The calling out is loud, without inflection, and if you add some bongos, sounds like Beat Poetry.
This method can slow things down, but eliminates confusion as well as the ‘pickup’ counter normally taking up space in most restaurants. In their ‘down time’ waitresses wash the dishes at a machine under the eating counter. They never need to leave your sight.
For a place called Waffle House the number of waffles sold is not all that impressive; just over 418 million. I think there are McDonalds locations that have sold that many hamburgers. But at McDonalds no one bothers to say hello as soon as you walk in the door. This is a credo at Waffle House, as is the owner-operated franchise. ‘Operated’ means the owner is in the store, and failure to live up to that commitment is grounds for franchise default. At McDonalds you are at a food factory, but if you squint WH looks (and sounds, with its famous juke box) like your local diner. This simple distinction is the difference between a restaurant and a franchise that happens to sell food instead of shoes or insurance.
Waffle House Fun Facts:
Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s).
The number one Waffle House item sold is coffee. Waffles are number three, right after hashbrowns.
Challenged to a test, Waffle House has found at least 22,020,096 different ways to prepare its USDA Choice hamburgers.
More than 418,761,000 waffles (and counting!) have been served since 1955.
Waffle House restaurants serve more than 80 million cups of coffee each year.
If you stack all of the Jimmy Dean sausage patties Waffle House sells in one day, the stack would be as tall as the Empire State Building.
Waffle House sells enough Bryan bacon in one year to stretch from Atlanta to Los Angeles 7 times.
Waffle Houses on I-40: Exit 12, 16A, 16B, 18, 20, 80A, 82A, 172, 196, 199, 201B, 204, 216C, 219, 221, 226, 238, 278, 286, 287, 317, 374, 378B, 394, 412, 417, 435