As Greasy Spoon Week continues, Eater correspondent Angela Hansberger interviews Waffle House "lifer" Tonya Rhinehart, who has worked at the restaurant for over a decade.
Is there any experience more quintessentially American than going to a diner? Whether as a neighborhood institution or a stop on the way to a final destination, these greasy spoons are heralded as the place to go for comfort food in a no-frills environment. And the most well-known in Atlanta? Waffle House, the iconic chain with its bright yellow sign.
With over a thousand locations open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Waffle House is sure to have plenty of employees who are in it for the long haul, people who've been slingin' hash for 15 years or more. Here, now, meet one of them: Tonya Rhinehart, a local Waffle House server who's been with the restaurant for 16 years and loves every minute of it.
Are there a lot of servers who have been doing this for so long?
All over the company! Servers have had kids and sent them through college working doing this. All of these pins on my nametag are for different years of service and different fun things we have done. They remind me of all the fun moments.
What is your busiest time?
Weekend mornings are always busy, but Christmas is our busiest day. People don't want to cook breakfast on a day when they will be cooking all day. It's a big tip day too— 50- and 100-dollar bills.
And the crazy late nights?
That's when it is best, when it is crazy! You've got to stick and move to handle it. This is a stage back here. It's a show. The food is free; people pay for the show.
What is the biggest tip you have received?
My Durango sitting out in the parking lot. A customer that comes in a lot bought it for me. He said, "Just keep on treating me the way you do." He always orders two eggs over medium, grits, and a biscuit. I bring him two glasses of iced tea because he always drinks the first one fast. I remember what you eat first, then I remember your name.
So you have a lot of regular customers?
I have regulars that come in every day. Some even come in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner— people wait to sit in my section. They feel more like friends. I call them the Breakfast Club. They invite me to parties and weddings. There is a lady who just retired this week— I bought her breakfast. She seemed sad that she wouldn't be coming in every day, and I said "You don't have to come and eat. Just stick your head in the door sometime and say hi." This couple that has been married 64 years comes in every weekend. He lives in a nursing home but she checks him out to come. He walks through the door and says, "Where's my waffle?"
Do you have favorites?
Last year, I went to the funeral of a regular customer. He was buried in a Waffle House hat because he loved coming here so much. He always brought me pecan brittle the week of my birthday. I would love some pecan brittle right now because I miss him.
Do you feel you have a degree in human behavior after doing this for so long?
Ha, yes. Waffle House is a different culture in itself. You have to try to have fun with this job. You have to be able to read people. You need to be a friend, a therapist, an actress, a mom, and give service with a lot of personality. You also have to give a shoulder to cry on when people need it or be a disciplinarian sometimes. Some people undervalue this job, but I have met a lot of good people.
Do you have good advice for new servers in a setting like this?
Just relax and be yourself. Be polite. Find your niche and bring some personality to it. And take care of your feet. Spend a little bit on shoes. She points to a couple of servers They are new. See? They don't have a waffle iron burn yet. You know that thing is 505 degrees?
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