Business

Late night at one of the busiest Waffle Houses in the country

Late night in the Waffle House kitchen on Mar. 24, 2017.
Late night in the Waffle House kitchen on Mar. 24, 2017. Special to the Sun Herald

“Pull one bacon.”

“Drop one hash brown in the ring.”

“Mark order over medium plate waffle.”

Welcome to late night at one of America’s busiest Waffle Houses, conveniently cubbyholed between the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, a Best Western hotel and MGM Park on bustling U.S. 90 in Biloxi. No wonder it’s busy.

You can get a hint about the place from the two faded Mardi Gras banners draped across a window near the entrance, which seem to say the party never ends at Waffle House.

At 9 p.m., only a half-dozen people are in the restaurant. A couple seated in a booth discuss their evening plans while others ponder whether to get their hash browns scattered, smothered or covered. True aficionados.

Not long after, the late-night crowd begins to filter in, each one greeted by cheery employees despite the hour. Waitresses take orders and in chant-like fashion, repeat it to the cooks, raising their voices over the din of conversation, food sizzling on the grill, dishes being stacked. Cooks call the order back. This rhythmic ritual is repeated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Shifting into high gear

The cooks become a blur of motion — cracking eggs, pouring them into skillets, scrambling lickety-split.

In what seems like seconds, the steaming-hot food is delivered. Perfectly buttered bread wraps the melted cheese, onion, bacon and patty into artery-clogging splendor.

A couple of bites into a patron’s meal, the cook herself, Stacey, comes over to ask if everything is OK. She calls customers “baby” and tells them to call her if they want anything.

A waitress walks up and starts doing dishes behind the counter. She spies a group of students and the interrogation begins. Where are you from? What brings you to Biloxi? How long will you be here? It’s a casual, friendly conversation that draws them out and makes them feel at home.

Among Waffle House regulars, this controlled chaos is known as the third shift. It’s the busiest shift at Waffle House and runs from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Into the melting pot

Each evening, it’s a melting pot: Dressed-up slicks who gave up on the casino, drunks trying to sober up, weary families with kids, bewildered tourists, late-night workers on a break or with a serious Jones for nocturnal breakfast.

Employees whisper stories about fights that have broken out in the diner. Tales are told of customers who threw up in the booths, leaving a mess to clean up. No employee will give their full name. The famously private company, they say, doesn’t allow employee interviews. Nor will the home office say just how busy this Waffle House is, only that it is “one of our busier.” It’s hard to believe it’s not the busiest.

In the wee hours of the morning, just in case, an armed security guard patrols the property, making sure everyone behaves.

The calm, then the storm

At 1 a.m. Saturday, the mood’s become somber. It is quiet, the calm before the storm, with only the roar of the enormous grill fan and a conversation between a customer and a waitress to be heard.

Then a second wave of customers arrives and the place slowly transforms from quiet diner to exciting after-party. Friends, squads, lovers, even entire families fill the place, sometimes to overflowing.

New arrivals are greeted by the aroma of sweet waffle batter and sizzling bacon. Waitresses, cooks and busboys greet people with a welcoming hello. At this warm beacon on the beach, everyone is welcomed, regardless of age, race, religion or degree of inebriation.

Some head straight for a booth as if they have done this many times before, placing their orders without ever looking at a menu. The waitresses often greet regulars by name.

Others wait a moment just inside recently wiped-down glass doors. Slightly overwhelmed, they hesitate, scanning the few empty seats and sticky booths before taking the plunge and grabbing a table.

With the influx of hungry customers, the kitchen quickly turns into a circus of popping grease and yelled orders. Twelve employees juggle multiple tasks in the cramped kitchen.

Party time

A customer stumbles his way to the jukebox squeezed between a row of red-and-black chairs and a booth. He peruses the music selection for several minutes before choosing “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. The pick immediately inspires several claps and “hell yeahs” from customers and staff. Party time.

A waitress, Little Debbie, asks if a customer needs a refill of sweet tea and recommends the peanut butter waffle. A man nearby overhears and orders the eccentric waffle combo for himself. At Waffle House, it’s every man for himself.

Coming up for air every few seconds, he raves about how delicious the waffle is and contemplates getting a second order. People here love the food.

Y’all come back, now

About 3 a.m., the crowd starts to fizzle. Bill, who has been working behind the counter all night, notices the lull and bemoans how slow the night has been. Tomorrow night, he promises, the joint will really be rockin’.

With heavy eyelids and full stomachs, customers pay their bills and head for the door. Almost as if they are leaving a family reunion, waitresses call out tender goodbyes and beg them to return soon.

At 3 in the morning, the third shift still has four more hours to go. They never know who is going to walk through those doors. And that’s half the fun.

Rachel A. Ishee is part of a group of Ole Miss journalism students who recently spent a weekend on the Coast reporting for the Sun Herald.

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