Lunch rush on the grill line with Janice Collins
Next to the cup of Mr. Pibb on the counter lies a Merit Lights soft pack. It supplies a steady succession of cigarettes to Janice Collins, who absentmindedly lights them and ddrags from them. After four-plus hours working the grill on the first shift, she’s taking a leisurely break. The lunch-hour rush is slow in coming here at the High Point Road Waffle House so there’s no need to hurry.
She’s been cooking since 7 a.m. and she’ll clock out at 2 p.m. after cleaning the grill. After nearly 30 years on the job eating is not foremost on her mind when she catches her break.
‘“A little Pibb,’” the 46-year-old Collins says. ‘“I might sneak a sandwich. I eat before I come in. It’s enough.’”
At 12:30 the booths begin to fill with paying customers. In the main they’re a freshly scrubbed, slightly shaggy lot from the conference for Students Uniting to Intimately Encounter the Living God and Personally Engage a Lost World at the Koury Convention Center across the street. A party of seven sets the lunch rush in motion.
‘“Well, I gotta go,’” says Collins, abruptly breaking a scarcely smoked cigarette with a jab into the ashtray.
Collins and Kenneth Walden, the second short-order cook, elbow up to two grills flanking a row of gas burners. A wire basket of eggs is drawn from the refrigerator to the left. The waffle irons to the right are filled with batter. Bread slices are slotted into toasters.
Collins lays plates on the wooden board that fronts the two grills.
By 12:35 the cook is turning hash browns with a spatula on the grill, ladling oil into a pan over one of the gas burners, scrambling eggs in the container and then dropping the contents on a tortilla already laden with strips of bacon. Collins rolls the tortilla and sets it on the grill. Not long after, with a flip of the wrist she tosses a panful of scrambled eggs in the air before folding in a pile of diced ham and spilling the contents onto one of the plates. Walden butters two slices of toast, slices them diagonally on the board and slides them onto either side of the eggs.
By now there are nine parties in the restaurant. Three servers are calling orders and collecting plates from the grill at a rate that leaves an untrained observer struggling vainly to keep track of the action.
The three servers, Karen Parker, Connie Tillman and Lynn Davidson, will call orders in quick succession: ‘“Waffle on three, order of scrambled light’… Order scrambled cheese on two, two sausage, one bacon well’… Bacon, egg, cheese’….’”
Collins picks two eggs from the basket, and one at a time with one hand squeezes the contents out into the pan before discarding the broken shells in a receptacle next to the burners. She’ll fork the mixture a couple times, turn her attention to another task, and fork the eggs some more after a minute or two, before dispatching the plate to a table.
‘“It’s not as hard as it looks,’” she says.
With golden hair spilling from beneath her visor, gold globes dangling from her ears and sympathetic eyes behind wire rim glasses, Collins is the picture of relaxed efficiency. She moves through the orders with a poise and economy of movement that can only be possessed by someone with three decades on the job. She started as a server in 1976 or 1977 ‘— she’s not sure which ‘— at a Waffle House a stone’s throw away from the present location, and worked up to manager at the Kernersville restaurant. Later she requested a demotion to cook so she could spend more time at home to keep an eye on a restless teenage son.
Her first job was at a carwash on High Point Road. For a time she worked at Neese’s Sausage in Greensboro. Other than those two jobs her entire working life has transpired at Waffle House. Other employees have similar longevity. Davidson: about 30 years; Parker, whom Collins hired: 18 years; ‘Mama’ Jean Mayo, the second-shift cook: about 15 years; and Tillman started in 1999.
Collins earned Waffle House’s ‘master grill operator’ title during one of the hip-hop SuperJam events at the Greensboro Coliseum in July. The title is bestowed on any cook who clears more than $3,000 worth of business in a single shift. During SuperJam Collins worked a third shift that brought in about $3,500. It was her second shift in a 17-hour workday.
The Coliseum, along with the cluster of Koury properties near the interstate brings the High Point Road Waffle House a hefty portion of its business. There is an element of familiarity ‘— repeat customers who send Christmas cards to cooks and servers ‘— along with a measure of access to celebrities.
‘“After you’ve worked here so long the customers become part of your family,’” Collins says. ‘“We’ve had rap groups here. Timbaland. Bruce Bruce. He is a big man. And funny. Fat Joe. I got his autograph.’”
Second to the jukebox stocked with cuts by Fantasia, the Embers, U2 and George Jones, among others, with six plays for a dollar, the Waffle House’s greatest charm is perhaps its open kitchen.
The servers comport themselves like military commanders calling out food orders with crisp phrasing, but then a fickle child will inevitably change his mind and the server must amend the order and the cook process the changes. Collins will sometimes smile with her ear cocked in the server’s direction and nod, with an internal supercomputer running in her brain.
‘“When I first started it was memory,’” she says. ‘“We don’t cook by tickets.’”
She still relies heavily on memory, and rarely misses an order. The cooks also utilize what is known as the Waffle House ‘magic marker’ system.
As they hear their orders the cooks arrange condiment packets on the bare plates creating a blueprint for the meal preparation. A jelly packet represents eggs. A packet placed on the left side of the plate means over easy. Right means over well. And the middle, of course, means over medium.
A Heinz mustard packet means pork chops, but if it’s upside down it means country ham. The top of the plate means eggs sunny side up. The bottom means scrambled. There are infinite combinations and permutations.
‘“You’ve got to have patience,’” Collins says. ‘“Orders are coming at you from all directions. Kindness defuses a lot of hard feelings.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org