Welcome to Waffle House!
The aroma of freshly made waffles and sizzling bacon hits you the moment you open the doors and enter the Waffle House on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The Carolina blue tiles and photos of UNC’s campus make you feel at home. As you sit down at a booth next to the open kitchen, an employee scurries over to greet you and gives you a plastic menu with colorful pictures. Even though it’s 1:00 in the morning, your waiter introduces himself with the spunk of a 5-year-old on Christmas morning. Once you’re all settled in, the conversation between a group of students behind you spills over into your booth. Suddenly you recognize the voice behind you as your roommate from freshman year and you spin around. Before you know it you, your old roommate, your old roommate’s friends, and your waiter are all talking and laughing together while eating delicious breakfast food. You’re now fully engaged in “The Waffle House Experience.”
College students are constantly on-the-go. With such busy calendars, going out to eat is a special event for college kids. Despite the low quality and unsavory aspects Waffle House processes, students still flock to the 24-hour breakfast eatery. In this ethnography, I take a bite into the aspects of UNC student culture that make Waffle House a hot spot. “The Waffle House Experience” socially connects students through its diner style setting, its group dynamic, and its friendly staff.
An Ethnographic Recipe
I visited the Waffle House located on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on 2 different occasions. I took observations on both trips and interviewed customers on my second trip. These observations took approximately one hour each. The interviews consisted of a series of six questions[i]. I went to Waffle House late at night because this is notoriously the most popular time to eat there. I actively participated by sitting down, ordering food, and interacting with the employees. In hopes to conform to the culture at Waffle House, I brought a group of friends with me so that I appeared to be engaging in conversation. This also allowed me to inconspicuously take notes on my laptop. I observed the types of interactions between people by analyzing the general moods they displayed, the tone of their voices, their conversation topics, and the actions preceding and following the interactions. I also took notes on the setting and how it influenced these interactions.
[i] 1. Why did you choose to eat at Waffle House today?
Did you come to Waffle House alone or with other people?
How would you describe the staff at Waffle House?
Do you prefer sitting at the counter or in a booth?
What is your favorite thing about Waffle House? Why?
How would you describe your experience at Waffle House?
Diner Style Setting
The Waffle House on Franklin Street brings students together through its unifying layout. As a customer, you can choose between two options: a booth or the counter, both of which encourage socialization. Hurley (1997) comments about a diner where, “The teenagers invariably commandeered the diner’s rear booth, finding it an ideal space for long evenings of socialization” (p. 1295). Almost every group of students who came to Waffle House chose to sit at a booth. One student preferred sitting in a booth because, “it’s more comfortable and I can see my friends better than at the counter” (personal communication, October 20, 2016). The abundance of booths at Waffle House makes it a prime location for students to socialize with one another.
You are always guaranteed a front row seat at Waffle House. Both the counter and the booths are positioned next to the open face kitchen where customers can peer over the cooks’ shoulders and watch their food as it is made. Since everyone sits next to the kitchen, customers can talk with their waiters almost as much as they talk with their friends. Lunceford (2011) asserts, “Because of the close proximity of the kitchen, especially at the counter, the two spheres often intersect” (p. 449). The physical link connecting kitchen and customer facilitates socialization by encouraging conversation between customers and employees. Even if you come to Waffle House without your friends, you’ll still have the sociable staff to chat with. “The Waffle House Experience” gives students a welcoming, well-structured place to socialize.
Waffle House facilitates socialization by promoting interactions within groups and between groups. Many students come to Waffle House to chat with their friends. One interviewee told me, “My friends and I were hanging out and wanted to go somewhere where we could get good, inexpensive food late at night” (personal communication, October 20, 2016). Her late night adventure to Waffle House served as an extension of a social event because she was able to eat while simultaneously spending time with her friends. In addition to the socialization within groups of friends, “It is easy to become drawn into other people’s conversations” (Lunceford, 2011, p. 449), making Waffle House a place where socialization is inevitable. One group of girls at Waffle House talked with another group of girls and eventually engaged in a lengthy conversation with them. Waffle House has a group dynamic that encourages within group socialization and between group socialization.
Why is Waffle House a place where so much socialization occurs? Fox (2003) claims that food is, “a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together.” (p.1). Fox’s perspective demonstrates that people enjoy eating together because it is an occasion for sharing and expression. College students are notorious for their self-expression and indulgence in food, making Waffle House an ideal spot for UNC students to get together. Customers are socially connected at Waffle House because eating doubles as an event for expression where students can talk with their friends and other students.
If you really want to understand “The Waffle House Experience” you should talk with the Waffle House employees. The interesting, humorous, and friendly employees at Waffle House invite socialization because they make customers feel like good friends. Lunceford (2011) described his waitress at Waffle House as someone who, “warms up our nation’s diners, calling everybody honey… She makes you feel at home” (p. 453). When a waitress calls you “honey,” the barrier between customer and employee falls down, thereby encouraging greater levels of socialization. Conversations between customers and waiters are boisterous and casual. One group that I observed appeared to be friends with the staff and carried on a conversation with the employees while they were eating. “The Waffle House Experience” is enhanced by the conversations UNC students share with employees at the homey breakfast eatery. As a student, you are socially engaged during your time at Waffle House because you are more than a customer; you are a friend.
Paying the Bill
An ethnographic approach to “The Waffle House Experience” demonstrates that students are socially connected each time they visit the diner. The unifying setting, the group dynamic of eating and expression, and the friendly staff all stimulate a vibrant UNC culture of socialization. Waffle House is a place of social facilitation where UNC students can enjoy a tasty meal in a lively environment while talking with new and old friends. Questions about student culture at the Waffle House still remain: How do the qualities of UNC as a large, public university affect student socialization? Does Waffle House provide a niche for a specific demographic? Future research may investigate how specific characteristics of UNC students influence socialization at Waffle House. Despite the somewhat grimy food and atmosphere, it is evident that Waffle House is a unique place where students enjoy socializing and eating.
Clifford, E. (2015). Whip up some Leslie Knope approved waffles for WAFFLE DAY! Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://hellogiggles.com/whip-leslie-knope-approved-chocolate-brownie-waffles/
Fox, R. (2003). Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Center. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://sirc.org/publik/foxfood.pdf
Hurley, A. (1997). From Hash House to Family Restaurant: The Transformation of the Diner and Post-World War II Consumer Culture. The Journal of American History, 83(4), 1282. doi:10.2307/2952903
Lunceford, B. (2011, October). “She Just Called You Honey”: My Quandary at Waffle House. ETC. doi:67444900