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Hearing the call: An inside look at working at Waffle House

March 26, 2018 GMT

GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — You’ve placed your order at Waffle House, then the server calls out to the person at the grill.

“Pull one sirloin medium, drop two hash browns scattered, mark a steak and eggs scrambled, and double the plate.”

Translation: Make two scrambled eggs, a large hash brown, toast and a medium sirloin on the side.

The “call” from the server to the grill is code language for each order. How does the person at the grill remember the orders — especially when that person is working on multiple orders at the same time?

Katie Pearson, a manager at the Waffle House on the 72 Bypass in Greenwood, said the person on the grill uses condiments and utensils to mark up each plate. For instance, a jelly cup on the front of a plate means scrambled eggs. One with a piece of cheese means scrambled eggs with cheese. Jelly cups in other locations on the plate stand for other ways to cook an egg.

If you order a sirloin, ketchup packets placed in different areas in the middle of the plate remind the cook what temperature to cook the meat. The top is well done. The bottom is rare. Butter cups stand for waffles. An upside-down butter cup is a pecan waffle. A sideways knife means to hold the toast. There are more than 50 ways the cook can use items to mark the plate to remember an order.

This is the world in which Pearson operates. As a manager, she juggles cooking, payroll and paperwork, and taking in supplies, among other duties. She generally works first shift six days straight and then has two days off, but she came in recently on third shift to get a food-cost issue under control, she said.

“If you have management on that shift, it kind of helps even that out,” she said.

Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is rarely downtime for the staff. Pearson works in a fast-paced job and loves it. She just got back from a long vacation, one of the benefits Pearson lauds about working for Waffle House.

“I just got off my 10 days of vacation, and it was amazing,” she said. “I’ve never had 10 days off work in my life.”

She visited Louisville and watched the North Carolina vs. Louisville men’s college basketball game.

Pearson started at Waffle House in 2012 and worked at off and on at various locations through 2015 as a salesperson (server) while attending Lander University. She recalls her initial experiences.

“I don’t think I knew what I was doing for two weeks,” Pearson said. “I had problems calling out orders. I finally learned what the calls meant, and it finally clicked. After that, you never forget the language.”

Pearson sees a lot of regular customers. She said many order the same thing every day, so she starts pulling the items for their orders when she sees them in the parking lot. She knew that a customer sitting at the high bar likes his toast buttered on both sides and grilled well.

“You become familiar with it,” she said. “You kind of get to know everybody. They never ask for anything too extreme.”

Pearson first started working on the grill around Christmastime of last year. She said it was frustrating at first.

“I was just slow,” she said. “I cooked at home and stuff, and I had seen them (other Waffle House employees) cook, but I had never cooked for Waffle House before. I didn’t handle it well. The woman who trained me was like, ‘At the end of the day, it’s just waffles and bacon. Just try to get the food out the prettiest that you can.’”

The first time Pearson tried to cook an omelet, she pushed the pan forward and the omelet jumped backward from the pan and landed on her shoes.

“Everybody laughed at me,” she said. “But I tried it again, and, once you get that down, it’s nothing. Once you know what you are doing and you are keeping up with that many orders, it’s fun.”

Pearson said the crowds in the restaurant vary. There can be nobody there one minute, then “everybody in here” all of a sudden.

The busiest times often are the morning hours Monday through Thursday and then Friday after people get off work. Third shift on the weekends is also busy — and fun for Pearson and her coworkers.

“People would come in here in fives or sixes and sit at the same table singing,” she said.

Pearson has two children, ages 1 and 4, and she gets them to daycare before arriving at work.

“One of the hardest things for me is juggling my personal life and my work life,” she said.

But her customers are like an extended family.

“I like everybody who comes in here,” Pearson said. “We have first-shift regulars who come in here every day. They know your name and typically know a little bit about you because you’ve spent time with them every day.”

She also treats he coworkers like family.

“You want to make sure they are taken care of,” she said. “Other people need to enjoy their job as much as you do. My goal is to make sure they are making money, they are happy when they come to work, they are getting out of this what they need to get out of it, and they are making their customers happy.”

Pearson, who majored in English at Lander, worked as a reporter for several months at the Index-Journal before returning to Waffle House. The situation worked out better for her lifestyle.

“Everything kind of gets a little cramped sometimes,” she said. “I have two children, so me preparing for my day is different than some of the other managers.”

She said not everyone is cut out to work in food service.

“But, once you get in there, it’s so easy and so second nature,” she said.

Multitasking and good communication are important at Waffle House.

“I’m usually very good at multitasking, but when I first started here, I didn’t know how to prioritize,” she said. “After you do it for a while, you start getting your priorities in order and it becomes easier to do.”

Waffle House has a policy never to hold orders, so servers will keep calling them, and cooks will keep pulling the food.

“When they call it to you, you have to call it back to make sure you have the order right,” Pearson said. “When you call it back, your brain kind of registers what it is.”


Information from: The Index-Journal,