When Jessica Gantt moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1999, one of her first stops was the local Waffle House.
She was in her early twenties and needed work — both problems she thought could be fixed by a gig at the famous diner chain. But in over 20 years at the company, Gantt tells Rolling Stone that what started as an easy job with reasonable hours slowly turned into a dangerous and untenable situation.
“I’ve had guns in my face,” Gantt says. “I’ve seen fights, everything, right before my eyes while on shift. I’ve had to clean up blood from the lobby area because people were cutting on each other. Just last week there were two shootings at Waffle Houses, one in Indianapolis and one in Dillon, South Carolina. I feel scared.”
Waffle House, a southern chain, is widely known for fast and easy breakfasts paired with 24-hour service, seven days a week. With over 1,900 Waffle House locations in 25 states, there are so many Waffle Houses in the South that they’ve even become an informal index for government agencies to determine the severity of a hurricane. It’s a place for teens to congregate without supervision, a stop for cross-country drivers in need of a break, and a safe haven for drunk guests desperate to slam a few hashbrowns at 3 a.m.
But all of these qualities that keep Waffle Houses full of loyal customers have also accidentally made the chain synonymous with viral balls-to-the-wall fights. Brawls at Waffle Houses across the country have over 5.9 million views on TikTok, feature in dozens of year-end compilations on YouTube, and were even the punchline of a recent SNL skit featuring Jenna Ortega. One famed Waffle House worker even became an action hero meme nicknamed “Waffle House Wendy,” after a camera caught her easily deflecting a metal chair thrown at her head. But while Waffle House’s online reputation is one of famed internet lore, the reality has meant hell for workers. In both interviews with Rolling Stone and public statements, Waffle House employees describe breakneck shifts, low pay, and the constant threat of violence from customers, things that have inspired them to push for change.
“It’s just all about bottom line for them. They don’t look out for us at all,” Gantt tells Rolling Stone. “And I think it’s time to hold them accountable.”
On July 1, Gantt and at least five other staff members at a Waffle House in Columbia delivered a petition of demands to their management team, asking for fair pay, more consistent scheduling, and security during all shifts. After serving the letter, the staff told local paper The Post and Courier that they were retaliated against by management, who they allege cut down their shifts. After a week of no response, Gantt and her co-workers filed a labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and walked out during the mid-morning rush. And even though they’re back behind their counters, the staff members are pushing to get more Waffle House employees involved — with several telling Rolling Stone they won’t stop organizing until they feel safe going to work. When asked for comment by Rolling Stone, a spokesperson from Waffle House said the chain is proud of its long record “of effectively addressing concerns our Associates report to us. We intend to do that directly with our Associates.”
Twenty-one-year-old Naomi Harris is a substitute teacher during the school year, which means consistent pay and work she genuinely loves. But without a full teaching contract, she has to find additional work during the summer to make ends meet. She’s only been at the Columbia Waffle House for two months, but she tells Rolling Stone that in that time span, she’s already feared for her life during shifts.
“I was working first shift one day and a guy came in mad about some hashbrowns,” Harris says. “And he went outside to his car and got his gun. I was just like, ‘Wow, he was really about to possibly end my life over hashbrowns.’”
Harris adds that on their own, instances of violence make a shift scary. But because servers’ primary money comes from tips, and violence can keep customers from tipping, it means that workers often feel like they have to choose between their safety and their paycheck.
“The reason we have to suffer this is because Waffle House refuses to spend money on better security,“ Harris says. “They’d rather try to save money. But I shouldn’t have to go into work and think I’m about to die.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by fellow Waffle House employee Marshawna Parker. Parker, who’s worked at multiple Waffle Houses since 2001, thinks that Waffle House’s reputation as a cheap place to eat means that worker mistreatment has become an expected part of the establishment. She describes dozens of shifts where her location was shot at, even once where gunfire made the staff hit the floor so hard she dislocated her shoulder.
“We are servers, and we are cooks at Waffle House. But we shouldn’t get looked down upon because that’s what we choose to do,” Parker tells Rolling Stone. “That’s our livelihood. It’s my passion. And the lack of respect, how we get talked to, how we get treated, it’s not right. We definitely need security on all shifts. We’re not just bodies in the building. We have lives outside of Waffle House.”
Following their walkout, workers tell Rolling Stone they received a small victory in a letter from Waffle House corporate acknowledging their concerns. In a letter reviewed by Rolling Stone, Waffle House Vice President Joe Waller denied that any intimidation by management took place at the Columbia location, but encouraged workers to give a detailed report on the alleged incidents. What the letter didn’t do, however, is acknowledge any of the employees’ demands. So now, Parker, Harris, and Gantt, alongside other Waffle House employees, are working to help organize employees from other locations. And in the meantime, Gantt says employees’ determination to get better working conditions should prove to Waffle House’s corporate offices that their lowest workers aren’t striking out of greed. They’re fighting to feel safe doing what they love.
“We all feel each other’s frustration. We all understand what we’re going through. We care enough not to just quit this job and go find another one, but to actually want something to change here,” Gantt says. “Waffle House [has] got to do better.”