Waffle Houses are not luxurious. The box-like buildings are designed for cheerful efficiency, and cheerfully efficient they are. As soon as you walk through the door the staff call out a cheerful, “Good morning!” The pleasantries continue as you are seated and a drink is immediately placed before you. A moment later the waitress is ready to advise you or take your order. She’s well groomed, clean and friendly. She’s talkative without being a bore and easy-going without being slack.
The menu is also cheerful and efficient. The All Star Special is the best value. You get two eggs as you like them, grits (this is South Carolina) or hash browns (if you’re a Yankee), bacon or sausage, toast, coffee and a waffle, and the mug of coffee has no bottom.
I like to sit at the counter and watch the team at work. They are men and women, young, middle-aged and almost retired. They are African American, Hispanic, and white, and they are all working together as a team, joking and chatting. The waitresses shout out the orders in diner lingo, while the chefs are busy slapping bacon on the griddle, scrambling eggs, watching the hash browns, and flipping the sausages. One team member preps and finishes the plates, another is busy bussing tables, sweeping the floor and loading the dishwasher. Three girls are waiting tables. A manager circulates to talk to customers and keep an eye on the whole operation… cheerfully, efficiently and 24/7.
Waffle House is sixty years old this month. The first restaurant opened on Labor Day weekend in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Georgia. That restaurant was conceived and founded by Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner, who both continue to own a majority of the company. Rogers’s concept was to combine the speed of fast food with table service with around-the-clock availability. He told Forkner, “You build a restaurant, and I’ll show you how to run it.”
After opening a fourth restaurant in 1960, the company began franchising its restaurants and slowly grew to twenty-seven stores by the late 1960s. There are now over 2,000 Waffle Houses in twenty-five states, and as my local manager told me, “They keep building a new one every day!”
Writing about Southern culture Jim Ridley observes:
The Waffle House is everywhere in the South. It has inspired country songs, comedy routines, loving editorials, a scene in the movie Tin Cup, and even web sites and Internet newsgroups that breathlessly post late-breaking developments. With more than 1700 locations in 25 states, as far north as Ohio and as far west as Arizona, Waffle House is cherished by thousands of diners. Regular customers speak of its employees, its customs, and its food with near reverence. Touring musicians have been known to eat five meals a week there. Yet the Waffle House is so pervasive, it is invisible. It does not advertise; it hides in plain sight.
What’s the real secret of Waffle House success? No doubt the usual American mix of customer service, good value, military precision, and entrepreneurial genius, but behind it all some truly American values are being lived out. Despite being a national chain, Waffle House manages to create a local feel. One morning over breakfast I found myself seated next to a local African-American pastor and we started swapping ministry stories about our flocks. Another morning I found my bill had been covered by a local Catholic businessman who gave me a cheerful (and efficient) wave as he downed his bacon, eggs, and coffee.
The local feel is created by loyal and local staff. Not only does the mix of sex, ages, and races reflect the best of America working together, but every time I’ve visited Waffle House I get the impression that the team really enjoys working at Waffle House. Employees report good benefits with health care and paid vacations, but there’s more to Waffle House success.
I’ve quizzed managers and discovered that many of them have worked at Waffle House for twenty years or more. Then I discovered one of the reasons for the cheerfulness of their hard work: employees are given the opportunity to purchase stock in Waffle House. While Forkner and Rogers continue to own majority, they’ve encouraged employees to share ownership through purchasing stocks.
At Waffle House you don’t only get a slice of pie, you get a slice of American pie. A good company not only looks after ts customers, but it also invests in their workers. In this way, Waffle House is not only an American success story, it is also a great example Catholic social teaching in action. Catholic social teaching swings on the two hinges of subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that initiatives are taken and solutions are found at the most local level possible. Solidarity is the principle that we are not islands. We are “a continent, a part of the main.” We are family. We care for one another.
If these two principles were applied within families, within parishes, within dioceses, communities, corporations, and governments many of our social problems would resolve themselves. Put simply we should care for one another at the local level—the level of reality. We should, if you like, serve one another breakfast more often…
…and we should do so cheerfully and efficiently.
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