"Why would you eat your grits anyplace else?" That's the title of a song on the Waffle House jukebox, and it's what I think to myself every time I dig into breakfast at the greasy-spoon chain, a personal favorite, which has some 1,500 locations from Delaware to Arizona.
Waffle House is not Chartres Cathedral, admittedly, but it has a certain architectural je ne sais quoi. The classic Waffle House is minimalist in design, with a lemon-yellow strip running around the top, above a wide band of windows and, often, a red or red-striped awning. The interior is outfitted with retro globe lights and red-and-chrome stools. Unlike most fast-food joints, Waffle House has an open kitchen, so you can watch the cooks as they scatter and smother your hash browns.
But the Waffle House experience, little changed since it debuted in Georgia in 1955, may now be in for an overhaul. Earlier this month, the chain revealed the design for a new restaurant it will build on Canal Street in New Orleans. "It's probably going to be the fanciest Waffle House you will ever see," a company representative told the New Orleans Board of Zoning Adjustments.
The new-model Waffle House will have a "bistro courtyard" encircled by a wrought-iron (!) fence. There will be stucco and brownish brick on the outside, and a gate next to the parking lot. Gone is the ubiquitous yellow band, replaced here by more muted "Waffle House" lettering. Renderings also show loft-style windows on at least one side of the building. It's not yet clear what the inside of the restaurant will look like.
New Orleanians will be excited to get a Waffle House in Mid-City, and I would never begrudge them that. But this new design is all wrong for Waffle House as a brand, and falls short of its status as a Southern icon.
The company owes that status to an architect you've never heard of, Clifford A. Nahser. A World War II veteran and Georgia Tech graduate, Nahser was still a fledgling architect when Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. approached him for help designing his prototype diner in Avondale Estates, near Atlanta. As the chain grew, Nahser went on to design hundreds more restaurants, drawing up the plans in his basement after his day job at Atlanta Public Schools. (Nahser died in 2010; see this great obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
Nahser's aim was to make the yellow-and-red color scheme integral to the company's brand, and he succeeded. Is there a more recognizable roadside sign than the yellow Scrabble pieces spelling out WAFFLE HOUSE? (One designer has called the sign a great example of a monospaced font.) Whether deliberately or through benign neglect, the company did not move far from Nahser's vision until now. While other national chains tinker endlessly with their store designs—there are now McDonald’s restaurants with wood slats—Waffle House has kept things old-school. And why not? Nahser's bright box is the perfect symbol for a business that prides itself on welcoming customers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (Waffle Houses are so dependable, in fact, that FEMA created a Waffle House Index for natural disasters.)
What bothers me is not that Waffle House feels it's time for a change (maybe it is) so much as the direction they've chosen. As the "loft" aesthetic has permeated American culture, we're seeing watered-down faux-warehouse details in outposts of Chipotle and Starbucks, and that is the style we see here. It's as generic as the classic Waffle House look is distinctive. Couldn't the company have hired an architect known for his or her use of bold color to bring more of a pop sensibility?
In fairness, the powers-that-be in New Orleans likely wouldn't have welcomed such a brash insertion on Canal Street. The site, next to a huge new VA hospital now under construction, falls in a special zoning overlay district to promote compatible development (although there's a pretty brash Midas auto repair location down the street). A company spokesperson said she believes the new design "is somewhat unique to this location." Let's hope this iteration of Waffle House is indeed a one-off. At truck stops and strip malls all over the country, we still need that shot of primary color, a no-frills design that has stood up so well for six decades.
Enjoy your waffles, people of New Orleans. Put a song on the jukebox for me. But you can keep your fancy Waffle House.