It’s the kind of thing that makes you do a double take — particularly, I suspect, if you’re driving down the road in pajamas.
U.S. Highway 78 between Snellville and Stone Mountain is a suburban mosh pit of what seems like every dining stop capitalism can toss at us. And then, between the McDonald’s and the Hardee’s, is the yellow-tiled sign that initially looks familiar.
The words below it: “DRIVE-THRU.”
Drive-thru? At Waffle House? It’s the only one in the 1,800-store chain.
And it’s an eight-month-old experiment that begs the question: Why now?
“Once you think about it, it’s like, ‘Where have you been?’ It makes sense,” said Vickie Starkey, who lives in nearby Lilburn and is a regular at the restaurant at 5245 Stone Mountain Highway.
I promptly went inside and saw a Waffle House drive-thru attendant wearing a headset. A headset! Right there under the hanging 1950s-era bubble lights, by the plastic table booths and black-and-white photos of servers from 40 years ago.
I asked a manager at the McDonald’s next door whether he was worried about the new drive-thru rival. Dillon Stout, whose location like others in the chain recently launched all-day breakfast, told me “it’s nothing that will run us out of business.” In fact, he said, when he first saw the Waffle House drive-thru he was “more bewildered” than anything else.
That a drive-thru would be a surprise at a roadside diner should be weird. After all, fast-food giants have been doing drive-thrus for decades, perfecting the science of rush (except when they forget my fries). But Waffle House is a study in anachronistic ambience. It opened its first restaurant in Avondale Estates in 1955 and doesn’t seem too interested in bending to the fickle winds of change.
Waffle House isn’t against evolution entirely. It tried jalapeno cheddar biscuits for a while there, didn’t it? And the corner jukebox is digital now, right?
Like uncongealed grease
Waffle House just moves at a slower pace than the rest of the world. It’s timeless, like grease that never congeals. Every time I go in one, it feels comfortable. The workers are real people not pimped up by the marketing and HR departments. And every meal comes with free entertainment: You can watch a cook in a paper hat fry your bacon. You might get a waitress who calls you Hon’ or Sugar. And you become part of the local cast of characters. Late-night crowds of young drunks are drawn by the house’s 24-hour beacon, filling food and an atmosphere that isn’t judgmental. We’ve all been there, or could be one day.
But Waffle House isn’t really fast. And in America, the demand for faster isn’t slowing down.
We eat breakfast more than we used to, but we’re feeling more rushed. Fast-food restaurants have seen their morning meal traffic increase each of the past five years, according to NPD Group, a research and consulting firm.
At the same time, family style restaurants — which include Waffle House, Denny’s, Perkins, IHOP, Cracker Barrel and others — have been losing market share as a group, said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst for NPD. “They don’t have the support of older customers that they once did.”
Many of the concepts “have not stayed relevant,” she said. “They are old and tired looking to consumers.”
But Riggs said she sees only limited upside for family style chains to try drive-thrus. They can’t serve complicated food items that will slow down the line or be hard for consumers to eat on the go.
Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner acknowledged as much.
“This is no major strategy for us,” he told me. “We are not looking to roll this out extensively.”
“We may put it in other restaurants; We may not,” Warner said.
The chain tried a drive-thru along Fulton Industrial Boulevard a few years ago. But Warner said the restaurant wasn’t on “the breakfast side” of the street to capture morning commuters with an easy right-hand turn in. The window operation closed after less than a year.
Then, in April, the chain took over the Stone Mountain location, a former Arby’s that already had space for a drive-thru.
“We thought, ‘Well let’s try it again,’” Warner said.
The drive-thru offers only a couple varieties of biscuits and hashbrown and grits bowls as well as an egg sandwich. No hamburgers, steaks, omelets, All-Star breakfasts or even waffles. It’s open only from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Still, the drive-thru has boosted the restaurant’s sales to the level of a hopping urban location, said Lesa Aque-Friday, a division manager who oversees the store and eight others in the area.
The drive-thru makes Waffle House attractive to more customers in a rush, she said, including some who pull up to the window in pajamas, she said.
“We are doing what we do best, which is catering to our customers.”
But it’s not an easy transition for some consumers. When I visited one recent morning, few drivers pulled in compared to the constant line I saw nearby at the McDonald’s.
Denise and Michael Webb of Lilburn eat at the Stone Mountain Waffle House at least once a week, but they’ve never tried the drive-thru
“We like the break of being able to relax,” Denise Webb said.
Maybe times don’t change after all.
Matt Kempner’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist )
Top sellers in Waffle House chain (and whether they are served at the drive-thru):
1. Coffee (yes)
2. Hashbrowns (yes)
3. Waffles (no)
4. Egg breakfasts (only in other items, like biscuits)