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The Gospel According to Waffle House 

After Hurricane Ian, Waffle House was the first to open back up.

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(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

A fistful of black letters flicker atop the pale yellow background. You may find better food elsewhere, but you won’t find better food for the money. They have a menu, though I have never needed it. Two eggs, over medium; bacon; hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered; one waffle with butter and maple syrup; and a cup of black coffee. That has been my standing order for decades and there’s been no need to get any more ambitious than that.

When you sit down at the table or the bar, you will likely be greeted by someone who calls you “honey” or “sugar” or “baby” or sometimes “boss.” But you will be greeted, and usually with a smile, by someone who knows what it means to work long and hard for very little. Some of them are working their way through college. Some of them are single parents trying to pay the rent and keep the lights on at home. Some are ex-cons trying to hold down a job by wiping tables and desperately trying to believe the rumors of second chances.

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Waffle House is at once mainstreet and back alley, cosmopolitan and parochial. On any given day, there might be a family of five seated near you with three small children scarfing down jellied toast and scrambled eggs. They’re here because the food is cheap and sometimes dad doesn’t want mom to have to cook after a twelve-hour shift.

There’s a truck driver sitting by himself, now on his sixth cup of coffee. He’s flirting with the waitress, but he isn’t trying to pick up a date. He’s just trying to survive the loneliness of a life of endless mile markers and few trips home. 

On one side of you will be three bikers and a war veteran swapping stories about close calls and near misses. On the other side will be an elderly couple who come every Thursday night. They come just to hear the voices. Their own kids have long since stopped visiting, and they’ve already buried all of their other friends. One Thursday night, the old man will show up alone. A waitress will pour him a cup of coffee and lightly touch his shoulder. She knows she can do nothing about the empty chair, but she can at least keep his cup full for an hour or two.

At one table sits a group of college kids, three days into a Friday-night bender. Beside them is an addict wishing he could tell them to quit while they still can. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or where you’ve come from, you are welcome here. Straight-laced or strung out, drunk or sober or in that fuzzy place in between. In blue jeans, a business suit, or pajamas. No one is turned away. 

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In recent years, Waffle House has also become a means of helping responders gauge which areas need the most help after a violent storm, such as the recent Hurricane Ian. In 2004, during Hurricane Charley, former administrator of FEMA Craig Fugate devised the “Waffle House Index.” According to the index, Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.

Since the stalwart wayside diner has the reputation of being the last business to close, Fugate’s color-coded index has become a useful barometer for measuring damage. “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed,” Fugate says, “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

Waffle House labors hard to work through the worst of conditions in order to provide food and shelter to those who have been ravaged by disasters. When Hurricane Irene ripped through Weldon, North Carolina, Nicole Gainey was a 22-year-old secretary for a trucking company who turned to Waffle House for breakfast. She summed up the thoughts of many: “I hadn’t had a hot meal in two days, and I knew they’d be open.”

In the wake of the most recent hurricane, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was seen bending over the griddle at a Waffle House in Charlotte County where he was frying those famous hashbrowns. “They were among the first to open,” the governor said. Reggie Smith, a manager for the franchise, spoke of those who come to Waffle House at such times, “They’re displaced from their life. This is a brief bit of normal.”

Whether one’s world has been turned upside down by an act of God or simply because of poor life choices, a person can always find a warm welcome and a hot meal here. Waffle House may not be a church, but they are certainly doing God’s work. And many of us could stand to learn a few things about open arms, hot meals, and second chances from this wild, wayside diner. 

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