Waffle House does not care how much you are worth, what you look like, where you are from, what your political beliefs are, or where you’ve been so long as you respect the unwritten rules of Waffle House: Be kind, be respectful, and don't overstay when others are waiting for a table.
Essay & Photographs by Micah Cash
Let me get the most important thing out of the way first: I like my hash browns scattered and covered. My preferred accompaniment to that crispy mass of potatoes is a two-egg breakfast, scrambled, with wheat toast, a side of bacon, crispy, and black coffee.
Now, let me address the other question: What compelled me to spend the better part of 2018 traveling throughout the southeastern United States with the sole purpose of visiting Waffle House restaurants?
I didn't do it as a testament to Waffle House’s cultural importance in the South. Nor did I do it because of my affinity toward Waffle House.
I did it because I wanted to see through each restaurant’s windows. I wanted to see the surrounding architecture, catalog adjacent businesses, and understand the public and commercial space around each restaurant. I also wanted to ask questions about our society and our social, economic, and political divisions.
The resulting photography project, “Waffle House Vistas,” collects images that document Southern communities as seen through the windows of Waffle Houses. In each instance, the point of view is the customer’s. Each photograph looks out from booths and chairs, making the viewer a witness to intertwined narratives of poverty, transience, and politics.
These photographs ask viewers to look up from their hash browns and acknowledge the institutions and structures that create real, yet rarely acknowledged boundaries that feel impossible to break through for much of this country. And Waffle House is the perfect place to have this conversation — beloved as a Southern cultural icon and scattered throughout our region like hash browns on a grill. But while the Waffle House feels like a “safe space” for such discussions, it has not, it is not without its own controversies.
Store #604: West Memphis, Arkansas
I began this project in the spring of 2018, amid a string of racially charged incidents that occurred at Waffle Houses throughout the South:
In April, a mass shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee, ended the lives of four people still in their 20s.
Also in April, police officers in Saraland, Alabama, were caught on video wrestling Chikesia Clemons to a Waffle House floor and then arresting her. Initially convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, she appealed and is awaiting a new trial.
In May, at a Waffle House in Warsaw, North Carolina, a police officer choked and pushed Anthony Wall, a young African American man who was buying a meal for his younger sister, whom he had just escorted to her high school prom.
Those incidents prompted the Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, to call for a boycott of the beloved chain.
Store #1912: Mobile, Alabama
I also began “Waffle House Vistas” against the backdrop of challenging political times: the trauma of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the activism that followed; the rhetoric of the 2018 midterm elections and their consequences; the threat and eventual occurrence of a government shutdown over the holidays. While I did not want the tonality of these photographs altered by those events, in truth, they were.
There was no way around it. These photographs contemplate our volatile political and economic climate and do so explicitly from the vantage point of Waffle House restaurants. My approach had its own rules: I would eat at every Waffle House I entered and make images only from where I was seated. I wanted to have a complete Waffle House experience every time. Not only did it give the photographs the authenticity I wanted, but it also compensated the restaurant for taking up a table, especially during prime dining hours. I ordered a full breakfast at the first restaurant of the day and would order coffee and a side of toast at the remaining stores, as it was customary for me to visit multiple locations in one day while I was traveling.
Why Waffle House? Why not McDonald's or Hardee's? Three reasons: consistency, personal relationship, and the chain's iconic status.
I felt that I needed a constant from which to study our built environment, and the relative sameness of Waffle House restaurants allowed me that ability. Whether you like it or not, Waffle House is your neighborhood diner, replicated thousands of times over. The restaurants are relatively the same, architecturally speaking, as are the menu, the prices, and the experience. This replication of experience was the conceptual underpinning of this project, and that repetition is illustrated in the images.
While the interiors would vary depending on the age of the restaurant, the signifiers that these photographs are made from within Waffle Houses are consistent: the iconic globe lights, the red vinyl booths, the semi-opaque blinds and their beaded chains, the identical tabletop arrangements. Those elements were constant wherever I went, as was the service. I visited approximately 60 restaurants in nine different states and never once had a bad experience. Sometimes my bacon was undercooked or I was served white toast instead of wheat, but I was never treated poorly, nor was anyone else.
Store #2181: Birmingham, Alabama
Second, nearly every Southerner feels a personal connection to Waffle House. How can a cookie-cutter restaurant chain win over the hearts of millions of people? My answer is inclusivity. In my experience, when you walk into a Waffle House, whether it is off a random exit in northern Alabama or downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, you are welcomed. At its best, Waffle House creates a sense of belonging unlike most other places.
Waffle House does not care how much you are worth, what you look like, where you are from, what your political beliefs are, or where you've been so long as you respect the unwritten rules of Waffle House: Be kind, be respectful, and don't overstay when others are waiting for a table. Besides, everyone who has ever stepped foot in a Waffle House has a story to tell: Perhaps it involves a late-night study session in college or a joyous pit stop on the way home from a concert or sporting event. Maybe it was a bad breakup over waffles or an early morning breakfast with your bridal party before your wedding. For me, it is the first time my son tried a chocolate chip waffle. The look on his face when he realized that chocolate and syrup taste great together was one of pure delight and discovery. Or the first time my father took me to a Waffle House around the age of 12. I sat at the counter mesmerized, watching the cooks sling hash browns and respond to shouted orders in what seemed like a secret language. These photographs require that personal relationship. I don’t set the stage for where these photographs are made so much as I witness the greater context of the interaction. Instead, the circumstances are gleaned from the viewer’s past experiences and personal relationship with Waffle House.
Store #411: Charleston, South Carolina
Finally, Waffle House is a uniquely Southern fast food chain. While there are over 2,000 stores across 25 states, a large majority are in the South. The chain was founded in Avondale Estates, Georgia, in 1955, and now keeps its headquarters in Norcross, another Atlanta suburb. Over its six-plus decades, Waffle House’s public persona and cultural presence became as complex as the South itself. Its demographics are as diverse as its appeal, thus the many Waffle House shout-outs in music from country to hip-hop. It has just as many restaurants in urban centers and suburban strip malls as it does off highway exits and in small towns.
If you identify as Southern, in some capacity that yellow sign is a part of your life. It simultaneously represents the comfort of a two-egg breakfast served with hospitality and local charm as it does the rich diversity of the South and its melting pot of cultures. Again, Waffle House is the stage for the country we live in. The demographics of who is eating and working at any particular restaurant reflects its location. Orangeburg, South Carolina, is a very different place than Shelbyville, Kentucky. Throughout this project, I would estimate that 60 percent of the Waffle House staff I encountered and 55 percent of the patrons were African American. There was approximately a 50/50 ratio of women to men, and no obvious age range. It’s everybody from high schoolers to parents with babies to the elderly.
As a whole, the ability for the local culture of a place to exist within the walls of a pervasive fast food restaurant is amazing.
Store #1644: Shelbyville, Kentucky
Store #1625: Orangeburg, South Carolina
A simple conversation in Marion, North Carolina, about what I was documenting turned into a rich discussion about how my server found herself in that area of the state and what her plans were for getting out of it. And it seemed almost every person's story I heard ended with the aspiration to get out — not just away from the place that they projected hardships onto, but also out of the economic and social conditions that led to the suffering, stress, and pain.
Experiences like this were frequent. I was fortunate to hear the dreams of a young server putting himself through school in Richmond, Virginia, where he moved after escaping a bad family situation in the Midwest. He was also the one who brewed me a pot of Waffle House dark roast coffee. I heard about the ambitions of a young server in Calvert City, Kentucky, who was telling me his plans to propose to his girlfriend just as soon as he landed a full-time job somewhere. I conversed with these people because I am one of them — I've worked in retail and restaurants. I know the stress and exhaustion of working three jobs to pay my bills. I know what it feels like to want to get out, a crushing desperation balanced only by the hope that one day you finally will.
Store #1: Avondale Estates, Georgia
I began this work because I have had a long-standing interest in witnessing, understanding, and pushing back against the economic and governmental structures that segregate us by race and class. That might seem extreme, but I have long argued we can see how we treat and value each other by merely looking out the window. The proof is in our tax codes, zoning laws, and businesses. That was the impetus for this project: What do I see and what does it mean? What is the architecture of poverty? I don't mean the extreme poverty fetishized every few months in the mainstream media, but the more common poverty that hides in plain sight. The people who live paycheck to paycheck. The families who pay more for their childcare than their mortgage or rent. The commuters who ride public transit for two hours to work a job that is a mere 15 miles away. This country is full of people who work hard yet are forced to work multiple jobs because none pays a living wage, yet those in charge consistently suggest to us that we’re lucky to have such jobs. Those jobs are plentiful, but undesirable. My swing through Kentucky and western Tennessee in mid-December of 2018 was proof of this. It seemed every other fast food establishment in both states had a "Now Hiring" sign displayed. It isn't a coincidence that most of the businesses captured in these photographs are fast food restaurants and low-end motels. This is not a critique of Waffle House as a corporation — good, inexpensive food that is prepared fast, 24 hours a day, is a desired commodity. But Waffle House’s business model overlaps with those of discount stores such as Dollar General, extended stay motels aimed at families without a steady place to live, and payday lenders.
Store #919: Marianna, Florida
While corporate profits surge and corporate tax rates drop, the rest of us continue to wait for the downward trickle. And while we wait, we need a place to commune, a place where we feel unjudged and accepted. A place where you can find shelter and calm for a long day on the road or share a meal with your family on a Saturday morning. A place that opens the day after a hurricane because their neighbors need food. A place that allows you order to hash browns exactly how you want them.
So, friends, do me a favor the next time you’re in your local Waffle House: Look up from those hash browns and see the world. Celebrate the diversity. Witness the inequalities. And ponder how things might get better.
Store #1837: New Orleans, Louisiana