Short Feature

Waffle House Meets Menu Hacks

Words by
Tim Lampe
Artwork by
Olenka Malarecka
Waffle House Meets Menu Hacks

In December 2022, video of a brawl at a Waffle House in Austin, Texas went viral. For the bellicose diner chain, the fight itself wasn’t particularly novel—but the clip’s unlikely hero was. A woman working the graveyard shift at the grill station parried a direct chair to the face with such grace and precision you’d assume she was moonlighting as a stunt performer. Her real name is Halie Booth, but she soon became known by various nicknames: Waffle House Wendy. The Waffle House Avenger. Becky with the Hands. Her notoriety might have been accidental, but the video remains a viral breakfast moment for the ages. 

It wasn’t long before Waffle House was in the news again. This time, it was because the restaurant chain—made famous every week for warriors forging a battle pit behind the counter to tell you they are not paid enough for this shit—has emerged the winner in the all-out war over TikTok menu hacks.

If you don’t spend all your time scrolling your FYP, you might have missed TikTok’s obsession with the secret menu hack. [] In January 2023, Chipotle announced that a popular order, the Philly Cheesesteak Quesadilla, would be added to its official menu. The hack—a steak quesadilla with extra cheese, fajita veggies, and salad dressing, which fans claim tastes like a Philly cheesesteak—went viral last year, after TikTok food reviewer Keith Lee tried it and declared it “a crossover I never knew I needed.” It soon became the ire of Chipotle workers everywhere, as its sudden popularity caused stores to run out of supplies and machines to break.

Starbucks—now better known for menu hacks like Frappuccinos with caramel drizzle, cookie crumble toppings, and sprinkles than actual coffee—has leaned into these baroque orders so hard that it has recently filed several patents, including for a machine that will help baristas more easily craft custom orders. On a fourth-quarter earnings call in 2022, the now-former CEO Howard Schultz was quoted saying, “There is no other coffee company anywhere in the world that has our ability to respond instantaneously to a customer’s request about customization, nor there isn’t a coffee company that has our ability behind the counter in terms of flavors, syrups, modifiers, foam, etc., to provide the customer what they want.”

They may be popular, but are TikTok secret menu hacks actually good business? Apparently so. Sara Trilling, executive vice president and president of Starbucks North America, noted that “60% of Starbucks beverages sold in the U.S. during Q4 2022 were customized, contributing to $1 billion in annual net sales of drink ‘modifiers.’” 

Both lucrative and bottomless—there is always a new off-menu assemblage to try, a new chance at virality—food hacks are undoubtedly big business, both for executives and their TikTok-obsessed customers. But where does that leave the people actually stuck making these convoluted orders—the minimum-wage workers who already have to deal with the threat of physical combat at the drop of a bottle of syrup?
Enter the “Texas Toast Bacon Cheesesteak” video from TikTok user @shantellxoxo, posted on January 10, 2023. In her unhinged hack, the Texas toast is replaced with the chain’s namesake waffles, and the sandwich almost topples over with extra steak, onions, and cheese. The original video earned nearly a million likes. Clearly, these folks have never drunkenly availed themselves of Waffle House’s already-ample late-night delights—like a full buffet of hash browns scattered, covered, and smothered (to use the chain’s lingo), topped off with a patty melt and a pecan waffle. Just as a hypothetical example, of course.

The original video caused an uproar among Waffle House workers. One store put up signs barely a week later declaring, “Order from the Menu! We’re not Making NOTHING you’ve seen on TikTok. (No waffle sandwiches!)” 

Not only was the hack a pain for workers, it was also—as one Waffle House employee noted in her own TikTok response—pretty expensive. “That sandwich gonna cost y’all about $20. So stick to a Texas Bacon Cheesesteak Melt or a Texas Sausage Egg & Cheese Melt because yeah, it’s about $20.” 

For much of the southern United States, Waffle House is the barometer for natural disasters and other catastrophes—in part because the chain, famously open 24/7/365, only closes its restaurants when the situation is truly dire. This has created a phenomenon known as the “Waffle House Index,” which determines the level of severity of, say, a life-threatening hurricane based on the number of Waffle House branches open in the affected area. (Once upon a time, your humble author found himself in the middle of a snowstorm with no power or food, but within walking distance of a warm, welcoming Waffle House bustling with people.)

Waffle House Index Map courtesy of the Gwinnett Daily Post

By that measure of cultural importance, we can look to Waffle House to gauge the power of TikTok menu hacks. Let’s adopt its infamous green, yellow, and red warning system:

Green: Waffle House is fully functional and only serving the normal menu, which already includes more food than most humans could possibly consume.

Yellow: Waffle House is fully functional, but serving limited compassion towards hundreds of people trying to order a Texas toast sandwich hack.

Red: Waffle House is fully functional, but closed entirely to frivolous TikTok requests.

In the last year we’ve been full-on code red at Waffle House, with hurricane-strength resistance to TikTok shenanigans. 

Amidst the new pressures heaped on fast food chains in our current social media landscape, Waffle House comes out not as the hero we want, but the hero we need. Workers are certainly not paid enough to deal with patrons holding up their phones and asking for outlandish waffle burgers. It’s time somebody stood up for what’s right.

So the next time you’re scrolling your FYP and see a menu hack going viral, resist the urge to annoy a fast food worker with your troubles and just order from the menu. Sure, you can try your luck—but only if you’re ready to defend against a chair launched directly at your face. 

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