I think about rising for school all those years, how difficult it was to go from cozy in bed to the cold, sterile school environment. I think about early morning band practices, shivering through thicker and thicker jackets as the season went on. I think about college, years spent staying up into the wee hours only to get up two hours later to make it to class (or the unfortunate times that getting up two hours later never happened). I think about getting up super early for family road trips down to see my grandmother in Florida, usually sometime around 4 am. We’d be out of Pennsylvania before the sun rose, crossing the border into WV with the light still an hour away. I think of that highway terrain.
I think of Waffle House.
Founded in 1955 by Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, Waffle Houses started conquering Southeastern highway strips by the late 1960s. That bright yellow sign is a beacon to road-weary travelers up and down the East Coast, promising hot coffee, hearty food and a friendly attitude. Basing the restaurant around the short order concept allows them to move customers in and out with a maximum of efficiency, yet it never feels rushed. While I’m positive that people can relate less than stellar service they’ve received at a Waffle House, I’ve never had the misfortune. All the servers I can remember were nothing less than friendly, even the one I had in Kentucky in March of 2006, when my hair was a bright indigo and my clothes were dingy.
Even when I’ve felt alienated by the rest of my surroundings, the Waffle House sustains a sense of road normalcy. Consistency is one of the things balked at by opponents of chain restaurants, but there’s something comforting about a common roadside stop. Travelers require a certain level of familiarity to ease through the less familiar – that’s why airports, no matter how differently they are laid out, contain essentially the same things. We need to know that no matter where we are, there is at least one thing that is recognizable, one thing that we can safely claim as part of our own familiarity. While I don’t want to live that way in my home life, on the road it can be a blessing to know what you’re going to get when you don’t even really know what’s around you.
And, besides, if you’re going to go with familiar, you could do a heck of a lot worse than Waffle House. Accompanying the friendly, fast service and simple interior is a jukebox stuffed with the famous Waffle House tunes. Dining in South Carolina Waffle House on Christmas Eve, you’re likely to hear not one but several holiday-themed Waffle House songs. Now can you say that you don’t find that endearing?
And the menu? It’s what it’s always been: greasy diner food that is cooked on a surface stained with the remnants of who knows how many other food items. Veg and vegan customers need not apply. Anyone constantly worried about eating less than healthy foods should probably check elsewhere as well. I’m normally a pretty healthy eater (um… sure…) but just the sight of the menu makes me long for some “Smothered” and “Peppered” Hashbrowns.
I associate Waffle Houses with early mornings and late nights, car trips taken with my family, then my friends. They dot Pennsylvania and even extend as far out as New Mexico, (the idea of eating at a Waffle House in Albuquerque is strangely appealing) but the restaurant will always be a Southeast treasure to me. I know that any time I chance on those highways, I will watch for each and every one of those yellow signs, and hopefully, when the time is right, make a stop inside.