Waffle House #545

Golden Comfort in Uncomfortable Times

words and photos
  by Clarke Condé

On a Sunday morning inside any Waffle House across the country, it can seem like everyone in the place is playing their own version of a Kris Kristofferson song in their head. We seek out comfort foods in uncomfortable times and Waffle House has them. Eggs as you like them, hot coffee, and waffles, of course. Breakfast foods served 24/7, and with them, a filling, promising start to a new day, regardless of what the clock may say.

Much has already been said about the Waffle House experience by the modern greats of the American food philosophy canon. Carved forever into the American experience will be the late Anthony Bourdain’s thoughts on the place, calling Waffle House “an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.” We romanticize our heroes after they are gone and seek wisdom in their words. Nowadays we particularly gravitate toward those who left us just prior to the onset of the pandemic. What ache lies in the words “It never closes, it is always, always faithful, always there for you”? Bourdain didn’t live to see the pandemic and was never confronted with a locked door at a Waffle House.

It is hard to romanticize a Sunday morning on Central and Tramway in Albuquerque, though. It can be tough for some who live there. Tough too for those just passing through. For decades, Waffle House #545 was like a golden beacon to the weary traveler, doing exactly what Bourdain said it would do. The blue travel services logo sign on I-40 still says that #545 is open twenty-four hours—but it is not. The pandemic has taken its toll.

This Waffle House was shuttered for a while, like so many restaurants throughout the state. The often-repeated myth that the keys to every Waffle House were encased in the cement of the sidewalk in front of the place was shattered as the yellow glow dimmed in 2020. Restaurant #545 has reopened to a weekend schedule but has yet to return to its full 24/7 glory. The owner says it will, but he has the same problem others in the restaurant industry have had of late: staffing. Sitting in Albuquerque’s other Waffle House location, which has returned to the classic 24/7 schedule, I asked the waitress as she poured my coffee why #545 was closed on that day and heard this old chestnut: “No one wants to work.”

Donald Love bought the Waffle House #545 franchise, along with the franchise to its sister restaurant by the airport, in 2008. Buying into a Waffle House franchise was then, as it remains today, a tight-knit affair: you can’t just buy a Waffle House franchise—you must work your way up. Love started working at Waffle House while in college in Albuquerque, then became a manager, then jumped at the chance to buy in when the opportunity became available. There are only two Waffle House restaurants in the state. Love owns them both.

Love downplays the differences between #545 and any others in the Waffle House chain. “There’s nothing different, here to Atlanta,” he says. It’s all part of the reassuring charm of  Waffle House, with nothing out of place. One exception is the green chile, an off-menu option true to our state’s character that Love says people like. “When we can get it,” Love says. That too has suffered, he says, under the pandemic’s supply-chain problems.

The food remains as expected, the highest praise. Consistency at Waffle House is paramount. Eggs are scrambled or fried to order. Hash browns are delivered “scattered and smothered,” in tune with a Waffle House linguistic subculture rivaling In-N-Out Burger’s. Everything, famously, is prepared right before your eyes. Everything is clean and bright. Knowing what to expect is what keeps people coming back. That is essentially the “comfort” part of “comfort food.”

But we remain in a pandemic, where knowing what to expect is hard to come by. Waffle House #545 has more signs up prompting customers to wear a mask than one might think would be necessary, but upon reflection, it is all part of the clarity, the expectation-meeting ethos of Waffle House. Love says, “We’re just trying to follow the governor’s mandate. . . . It’s not our mandate.” We should expect nothing less here and take comfort in the fact that they have not swayed in their commitments.

For a moment, sitting at the counter, basking in the sunny-side-up eggs and steaming coffee refills before me, everything seemed normal here at Waffle House. I could be almost anywhere in America at almost any time while actually being in Albuquerque on a Sunday morning in the middle of a pandemic. Here is, as it should be, an island of respite in a turbulent sea.

When I stood up and approached the register to pay, the waitress said, “Got your mask, hon?” I had forgotten my mask at my seat and, with it, the reality that things were still not normal. Dang. Even here, despite the best efforts of Waffle House, it still is not.

Clarke Condé
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Clarke Condé is a veteran food photographer and writer based in Albuquerque with a strong preference for red chile, keto-friendly beverages, and natural lighting. Find him on Instagram @clarkehere.