Tuesday, July 15, 2014

[Kings Waffle] Chapter 1: This is The Place

"You guys must come here a lot, no?" said the state trooper sitting at the low counter with us. "If this were a bar, we'd be drunks" I replied. He laughed before facing his palms to the sky and praying before his meal. It was a crude, unflattering answer, but probably the simplest way to describe how often we're here.

At the Waffle House. 

"Kings" Waffle House to be specific. 

I'm not sure there's a good way to articulate the whole concept without being judged. As soon as the words "last night at Waffle House" escape from your lips you can see a look on the face of the person you're talking to. The look that silently asks: "Why the hell are you hanging out at the Waffle House?" 

Go to a Starbucks and read? That's normal. 

Meet with clients at Panera? Good business practice. 

Hang out at Waffle House? You're weird. 

I'll tell you what though, I'd rather sit on the curb in the waffle parking lot conversing with other regulars than chug low fat lattes in a dime-a-dozen strip mall coffee joint pretending I'm in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on some quaint, charming Parisian street. Hell, we have an Eiffel Tower too except it's an amusement park replica across the highway.

- Looking out at the replica Eiffel Tower from the Kings Waffle parking lot.

I've been coming to Kings Waffle for about four years and the story takes some explaining. Technically, you have to go back to 2005 when I turned sixteen and spent my birthday in an interview room at Kings Island Amusement Park (KI). I was finally old enough to be a rides employee. I spent the next eight summers and a few winters working there. It was the best job I've ever had with some of the best people I'd ever know (I assume). The Waffle House across the street - we'd venture over there from time to time to get food after work. I'll admit though, it was more like a novelty thing. You know, as the naive saying goes: "who actually goes to Waffle House sober anyways?"

That changed in 2010. 

One day after work at KI, I joined some friends at a bar: Ben, his then girlfriend Liz, her roommate Sarah and this kid named Matt Wilkes. "How you doing, brother? It's been awhile," said Matt, extending his hand and a smile. He asked me how work was and what I had been up to before excusing himself to fetch another cheap beer. I would say it was good to see him again, but truthfully, I had no idea who he was. Ben filled me in: Matt was a former KI employee who now worked at the nearby and somewhat rival Beach Waterpark. According to Facebook, Matt and I have been friends since July 2008, but until I shook his hand that night in the summer of 2010 - I could've sworn I'd never met him a day in my life, let alone two years ago. Not that it mattered, Matt and I became fast friends when he was the only one who would come with me to see a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark at an old theatre. I started meeting up with Ben and Matt at Waffle House after ending shifts at our respective amusement establishments and essentially we've never stopped. Even now, I'm typing out this story at the low counter and sipping coffee (half a cream, a generous amount of sugar).

In the time I've been coming here I've befriended many people who I probably wouldn't have known or met in the world outside this 24/7 restaurant parking lot. For me, this place has been (and continues to be) a meeting place, a gathering hall, a Seinfeld-esque coffee shop, the bar from Cheers, a dinner theatre, a lecture hall, a political arena, a drama class, a soap box, a therapy clinic and perhaps most importantly: a place to get cheap coffee anytime.

The Waffle House never closes and if for some reason it does - there's probably bigger problems going on given that FEMA rates a disaster based on whether or not a store has actually shut down. Kings Waffle is always there, so are it's people. Regarding us "regulars," my friend Steph once said: "We're all loners in some way." Phil described it as "we're a late night diner crowd." Perhaps words don't do full justice to the people of Kings Waffle, each unique and wonderful in their own way. They're a true representation of what Waffle House is, not just cheap coffee and greasy food, but a melting pot in the way America is romantically envisioned. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, if you can afford a BMW or if you panhandle next to the highway - anyone and everyone is welcome. I wanted to start photographing the people who have become somewhat of a second family to me, to put a face to the stories and paint the picture of spending time there.

First though, you have to understand the setting:

Located at 5377 Beach Blvd. in Mason, Ohio - our Waffle House is affectionately known as "Kings Waffle" for its proximity to the nearby unincorporated community of Kings Mills ("Mason Waffle" is the other location an exit south on the highway). The store sits down the road from the nearby Beach Waterpark and across the highway from Kings Island Amusement Park - hence why it became the meeting place for friends working at the two separate entertainment centers. Over the years, as we got to know more and more of the other regulars, this became the only Waffle House to go to. Even now, with few still working for either nearby theme park, myself living in Northern Kentucky, it's still the place we choose to go. We come for the people, but the coffee and food aren't bad either.

Over the past few months, I started making portraits of the people I know from Waffle House. The people I've come to know as friends. The people who make the long drive worth it. I wanted to know their "origin stories" - why they came in the first place and why they keep coming back. It's a project I plan to continue, an ongoing story about a group of people sharing the commonality of a diner in the Cincinnati suburbs.

Their photographs and stories come next. For now though, this is the place:


  1. I love this post. I grew up in Norcross, GA and went to the Waffle House near my house almost every single weekend when I was in high school in the 1990's. Flip over a WH menu, and you'll see that Norcross is the HQ of WH. Most people don't understand my sense of pride when I share that bit of trivia, but that's ok. I love WH, and love that most people don't get it.

    I used to live in Cincinnati and would take my kids to the Sharonville WH. I'm proud to say I have converted my kids to the WH way - they love it, too.

    Nice pics, too. I prefer the old-school brown and orange/red WH colors to the newer grey colors.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for checking it out. I'm right there with you, most people definitely don't seem to get it. Glad you passed on the tradition to your kids.

  2. You stole my exact story haha. Only mine is from about an hour up 71 North at the Jeffersonville Waffle. Come in say hi, I'll be the one at the chair next to register at high counter... the call me the Mascot.

    1. A few of us Kings Waffle folk were up there recently, we'll have to come looking for you.

  3. cool story Ronny. my oldest daughter, Rebecca, worked midnights at Kings Waffle for a couple of years. i'll bet you have met her.

  4. I used to come here all the time with friends and coworkers from the movie theater down the street: Showcase Cinemas Kings Island. I worked there from 2006 until about 2011. I haven't been here in years, though. The theater has since turned into a Rave Motion Pictures and is now a weird church that I guess projects services from one location across the country.

    I have a lot of great memories hanging out with friends, getting an All-Star Breakfast and several cups of coffee. Sitting in the parking lot for hours after work and just talking. I actually really miss moments like that.

    It's unfortunate that they replaced the jukebox with a TouchTunes, though. Aside from that, it is identical to how I remember it 8 years ago. I'm really looking forward to this series, Ronny!

    1. Sup, Lammi!
      - Pat Quilty

    2. hey Ryan is Dean. thank you for the blog about Kings Waffle House. not many people realize just how much does happen in a Waffle House. nor chest how many awesome people you can meet there. and Kings Waffle House is the best of all.

  5. As team truck drivers (from Cincinnati) we hit the "aweful Wawffel" often enough. Some have truck parking.... wish they all did!

  6. Great post! You got some fantastic photos of the place too. The colors and textures are brilliant and I cannot believe how clean the place is. The one in Fairfield was never anywhere close to that.

    I am one of those people who don't understand Waffle House and dread the thought of going there. I look forward to you changing my mind!

  7. I worked there (at kings waffle) and hung out there pretty much all my down time between the ages of 15 and 17. I called myself in to school several mornings (playing the role of my mom) many of mornings, and until the past couple years, that was my go to after any excursion of drinking. Shocker! I know. A pot hole in their parking lot broke my foot. Some of my best stories start with "so the other night at waffle...". You can only imagine my joy when my cousin started working there a few years back.. She has moved on as well, but my entire circle of friends has a laundry list of great stories from that exact location. Vomit, drugs, alcohol, quantum mechanics, pickle races, physics, meaning of life, sex, dancing, crying, laughing. A life of scattered smothered covered and chunked. Ahh...memories. Great Blog. Brought a smile to my face.