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‘We’re not MMA fighters’: Waffle House workers demand protection from violent customers

Gerald Green, a Waffle House cook, speaks at a rally for staff at which they called for better security in restaurants and a $25 per hour minimum wage.  (Courtesy: USSW)
Gerald Green, a Waffle House cook, speaks at a rally for staff at which they called for better security in restaurants and a $25 per hour minimum wage. (Courtesy: USSW)

Waffle House cook Gerald Green is aware of the reputation of his workplace. Dozens of online videos documenting late night brawls at the 24/7 diner chain give the impression that its staff are ready to fight unruly customers at a moment’s notice.

But Green, who works in Georgia, says he and his colleagues are tired of having to throw hands and flip pancakes at the same time, and are calling on the company to take action.

“I know the joke is that everybody’s an MMA fighter, but no one actually is an MMA fighter,” he tells The Independent. “We don’t want that stuff. Stop trying to be on your cousin’s fight compilation video. We’re just trying to get your food and send you on your way.”

The apparent lack of concern from management about this steady drumbeat of workplace violence, plus other complaints, led staff at three locations in the south to launch a petition calling for change, which Green and his colleagues delivered to the Waffle House headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday.

The petition, which contained 13,000 signatures, claims workers face “the constant threat of in-store violence” and “poverty wages.” It calls for a $25 per hour minimum wage, an end to mandatory meal deductions — whereby the company takes money from an employee’s paychecks to pay for meals while on shift, whether they eat them or not — and 24-hour security for all three locations.

The Waffle House revolt was launched by workers at locations in Durham, North Carolina, Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, where Green works. Backed by the Union for Southern Service Workers (USSW), which was launched in 2022 with the stated of aim representing low-wage workers in the service industry, they staged “speak outs” in April and September this year, where they publicly discussed concerns about their jobs.

The recent call for action raises the prospect that workers at the national chain — with 1,900 locations in 25 states — may join the wave of service industry workers across the country seeking union recognition.

Green has been a Waffle House employee for seven years and has worked at several restaurants. He currently works the nightshift as a ‘rockstar cook’ — the highest level a cook can achieve in the company. He’s flipped a lot of tuna melts, and seen a lot of violence.

“I’ve definitely seen my fair share of people throw hands,” he says. The general lack of concern for staff safety at the company is what led him and others to take action — particularly after the unthinkable happened.

In 2017, a friend and colleague of Green’s was shot and killed during an armed robbery while on shift at Waffle House. The next day, Green was forced to work a shift. “He’d only been dead for a couple of hours,” Green says, “and that’s always stuck with me. Y’all called me in just a couple of hours after someone died. That’s messed up.”

A recent investigation by The Independent found an entire online subculture based around violence at Waffle House. Hundreds of memes play on the idea that Waffle House staff know how — and need little encouragement — to fight. “A fully staffed Waffle House could take out ISIS,” reads one. “If this is your first fight at Waffle House, you have to fight,” reads another, accompanied by a photograph of Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club wearing a hat belonging to the chain. In the last few months, both Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have run skits on Waffle House violence. You can even buy an “I Stand With Waffle House Employees” T-shirt, a heartfelt show of solidarity with the servers who stand on the front lines every evening.

A shooting at a Waffle House (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
A shooting at a Waffle House (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Despite the anecdotal evidence of violence in Waffle Houses around the country, there has not been much research into the causes. Many blame Waffle House’s all-night opening hours, which often leads to inebriated customers rolling into the diner into the early hours.

One study published in December 2021 that focused on fast food stores in California between 2017 and 2020 found “restaurants plagued with criminal activity, where workers are regularly assaulted, robbed, spit on, yelled at, sworn at and told to go back to ‘their country.’”

It’s not just Waffle House that struggles with workplace violence. The “Fight for $15 and a Union” collected 911 call records involving fast-food locations in nine of the largest cities in California, with a focus on four well-known brands: McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr and Burger King. Across 643 locations, they identified “77,200 violent or threatening incidents that resulted in a call to 911 for police assistance between 2017 and 2020.” Many of these locations generated hundreds of calls within the four-year span – as many as seven per week.

No single person I know here has savings.

Wages are also a huge concern for Waffle House staff. Green has been with the company for seven years, is the highest level of cook, and earns $17.75 an hour. Servers make less than minimum wage and have to rely on tips to make a living, but they can never rely on scraping together enough each week.

“Right now you can’t have savings. No single person I know here has savings,” Green says. “There’s no foundation. There’s just survival and it’s just weighing on people.”

The petition launched by the USSW begins with the preface: “Waffle House workers from across the South are fed up. We’re sick and tired of making poverty wages, the constant threat of in-store violence, and mandatory meal deductions – whether we eat a meal or not while on a shift. We refuse to be exploited – and so we’re getting organized.”

It calls for 24/7 security and for workers “to have real input on creating a Safety Plan for their store,” an “end to unfair paycheck deductions” and $25 for all workers, cooks and servers.

Waffle House did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.