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Walt Ehmer, president and CEO of Waffle House, drove from Atlanta to congratulate employee Sharifah Johnson, during a surprise "Sharifah Day" at a Charleston restaurant for the work she had done in 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Although Charleston has become a sort of a “foodie” (I can’t stand that word) “destination” (clichés should be avoided like the plague), there ain’t nothin better than going to a Waffle House when the mood strikes and the timing is right.

Nothing. It’s perfect — the place where there are no locks because it’s never closed, where, even if everyone doesn’t know your name, one might fail to notice because of the warm greetings, and where the food is delicious.

As with what is ordered from the menu, one needs to keep a sense of portion and proportion about things. From a pure wellness standpoint, this may not be the healthiest food to eat on a regular basis and, for those of us prone to heartburn, pre-medication with a Pepcid or a Prilosec may be appropriate. But, as I say, none of that matters when the urge strikes and nothing else will do.

Ironically, and as I believe I’ve mentioned before, Charleston, as a preferred locale for the discerning gourmand, does not necessarily showcase menu items in the traditional sense, which is to say in the style of the Junior League’s original Charleston Receipts or out of private homes where family recipes (not infrequently developed or influenced by highly talented African American cooks of the day) have been passed down for generations. It has become too fancy for that, eclectic, with disparate influences from around the country and the world.

Waffle House cooking blends in nicely — not Charleston per se obviously — but essentially Southern. The company has made national news twice over the past month, last week when an understaffed restaurant was voluntarily rescued by eager patrons willing to help out, and in early November in an article by Sam Walker in The Wall Street Journal, which made the case that if you can manage a Waffle House, you can manage anything. Following are highlights from the article:

It quotes a Harvard grad who was looking for a summer job five years ago and ended up at the local Waffle House in her hometown. She found herself, “smiling nervously at first behind a bright-yellow name tag” and, during her tenure, becoming deeply impressed by a female manager who would leave a lasting role model impression —“first to arrive and one of the last to leave and seemed to have a handle on everything. She thrived under pressure, and pressure at Waffle House is constant.”

The article notes that Waffle House is a closely held Atlanta-based chain of 24-hour budget diners in 25 states, doesn’t advertise, rarely changes its menu and refused to take credit cards until 2006. The author states that he got the idea for the WSJ article from a South Carolina reader’s email that included “this irresistibly provocative sentence: ‘I have come to believe that a successful Waffle House manager could succeed in almost any retail job in America.’”

At the same time the article makes it clear that the operation isn’t perfect. Worker reviews are said to often “contain gripes about long hours, chronic absenteeism, grueling holiday shifts, endless $8 checks and drunk and belligerent customers. “One reviewer was quoted as saying, “Don’t be surprised if you find out your cook didn’t show up because he was in jail.”

Despite some of the obvious difficulties, the article notes that somehow Waffle House continues to attract good managers with its “robust system to support employees and enforce policies.” While financials weren’t disclosed the annual revenue was estimated to exceed $1 billion. The company was quoted as saying the share of its employee-owned stock, based on audited book value, has gone up each year for the past 57 years. The company policy of promoting from within has meant that the good managers are inclined to stay, particularly since the starting salary of about $45,000 per year is said to have the potential of making $117,000 in five years.

Managers not only are trained to analyze P&L statements but expected to assist in the event of short-staffing, including cooking, cleaning and waiting on tables. According to a recent podcast cited in the article, CEO Walt Ehmer said doing the grunt work is good for business by helping mangers earn the trust and respect of their teams while staying connected to the entire operation.

“You learn a lot about what’s working and what’s not. What’s more, executives are said to practice what they preach when visiting the restaurants, wearing the same uniforms and pitching in when needed. The article cited this Ehmer quote: 'it’s hard to get an inflated opinion of yourself when you’re washing dishes every day.”’

What are the criteria for the Waffle House right stuff? Speed, for one thing, according to the article: “To meet the goal of serving every customer in eight minutes or less, the wait staff doesn’t bother pinching orders into a computer. They write them down in a shorthand code and read them aloud to cooks, who remember them by arranging condiments on empty platters. A face up mustard packet signifies pork chops, for instance.”

The WSJ cites endurance as another key element. Since Waffle House never closes, its remarkable stamina reportedly is used as a benchmark by FEMA in the way of the “Waffle House Index.” In other words, the author notes, “if the local Waffle House had to shut down, it must be bad.” 

By the way, that index is used around here when a hurricane is bearing down on us. 

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