ATLANTA — Waffle House is open again!
As rallying cries go, it’s not exactly “Give me liberty or give me death,” but in Georgia, where Waffle House is both a secular religion and a reliable barometer of catastrophe, unlocking its glass doors qualifies as front-page news.
As of Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp reopened Georgia’s restaurants, three days after opening other business establishments like bowling alleys and tattoo parlors. The move, coming even as the state continues to grapple with new cases of COVID-19, has drawn condemnation not just from Kemp’s political opponents, but public health officials as well. Even President Trump came down hard against Kemp last week, but Kemp’s drive to reopen the state has proceeded unabated.
But there’s more at work here than just a simple attempt to get the economy jump-started. Whether it was a savvy political calculation or just a sweeping catch-all decree, the thought of Waffle Houses, in particular, reopening carries a lot more weight in Georgia than your average fast-food burger chain.
If you mock the idea of a Waffle House being a communal rallying point, that’s only because you’ve never eaten at a Waffle House. The yellow-and-black logo, the red vinyl cushions, the warm glow of omnipresent globe lights, the all-but-infinite combination of hash browns (“scattered, smothered, covered, chunked …”) — all this and more combines to make Waffle House an inextricable aspect of any community it’s in.
The late, great Anthony Bourdain described Waffle House as “an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed.” Sure, that’s painting with a brush as wide as an area code, but still: you don’t need me to connect the dots any more than that, do you? Where else in America will you find that kind of unity in 2020?
A Monday visit to one of the roughly 330 Waffle Houses in the state — where I was the only diner in the store, along with four employees — offered up two equally powerful sensations: how nice it is to get back in touch with some aspects of pre-COVID life … and how far in the future a return to that life still lies.
For my first meal outside the house in six weeks (by the calendar) or 14 years (by what it feels like in my brain), I picked a Waffle House not far from my home, one whose TEMPORARILY CLOSED banner these last few weeks was a grim reminder that even the foundations of the community have cracked.
Waffle House officials say they’ve gone from employing 40,000 hourly workers pre-COVID to 12,000 today. That’s a crushing economic blow, and it’s one key reason the stores are reopening. Waffle House workers can’t do their jobs from home. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and if they don’t get paid, the rent doesn’t get paid. It’s a grim cycle that doesn’t improve with social media scolding from those lucky enough to be able to work from home.
At this particular Waffle House, I’ve scarfed down waffles and bacon at 2 a.m. after covering prime-time NFL games, and at 10 a.m. after finishing Saturday runs. On these seats, I’ve seen couples fight and unite, I’ve seen losing fans drown their sorrows in syrup and winning fans paint the ceiling with scrambled eggs. I’ve been coming to this Waffle House for 20 years, and I’ve never quite seen it like this.
Start with the chairs outside the doors, spaced more than six feet apart to allow waiting patrons some space. On the doors, and at every other booth and countertop seat, laminated placards call for social distancing, and literally half the seats in the restaurant are now cordoned off. Condiments are now by request, and there’s more space between patrons and servers than ever before.
I will say this: if you venture anywhere outside your house — say, to a grocery store or to pick up takeout food — you are likely to be in a more contagious environment than this Waffle House. Every member of the staff wore a mask and gloves, and employees are supposed to be screened every morning. Everything — floors, chairs, utensils, plates, maybe even that onetime-egg-stained ceiling — was sanitized. There was a clarity to the air you don’t often get at a Waffle House under normal operations.
“We had the benefit of being able to watch grocery stores and other businesses that stayed open, see the evolution of what they had to go through to provide greater safety measures,” Njeri Boss, director of PR for Waffle House, told Yahoo Monday afternoon. “As they were learning, we were learning.”
Per the state of Georgia, Waffle House and other restaurants also need to adhere to a 39-requirement list of conditions in order to open up and stay open.
From the disposable menu — another new touch — I went ultra-basic for my first meal back, ordering a pecan waffle and scattered & smothered hash browns (“smothered” with diced onions, you see). Maybe this is the quarantine talking, but that might have been the most delicious waffle I’ve ever had.
And maybe that was the problem. Everything was too perfect. It was like a Disneyfied re-creation of a Waffle House. We were all tentative around each other, and there were only five of us in the store. And when the jukebox segued smoothly from “Let’s Stay Together” to “Lean On Me” … well, that’s a little on-the-nose, isn’t it?
These days, Waffle Houses are closing at 3 p.m. — no more small-hours binge-waffling, sorry — and that meant I was the only customer in a store that also had two servers, a cook and a manager. Stores had been slow all day, Waffle House officials said; everyone’s clearly still a bit tentative about snapping right back into normalcy.
Let’s be clear: I’m not calling for everyone to bum-rush their nearest waffle joint. Not at all. Listen to the smart people, take precautions, and if you’re nervous or at-risk, stay at home. Hell, Waffle House has even pivoted to meal prep — you can now even buy the waffle mix they use at stores to make your own waffles. You can have the Waffle House experience in your own home, minus the colorful, possibly drunken characters in the next booth.
But one day, you’ll go back out into the world. You’ll visit your favorite restaurant or coffee shop or bar or bistro. When you do, whether next week or next year, don’t expect the experience to be what you remember. When even home doesn’t feel quite like home, “normal” is a long way off.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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