The guy who rose to become king of the "waffle kids," a real life cowboy, a song with a distinct purpose and the one you always save a seat for.
Nick a.k.a. "Supreme Chancellor"
About a year ago, Kings Waffle seceded from the United States to form the great state of "New Carolina." Throwing democracy to the wind, Nick acquired a crown forged from the gold/cardboard mines of the neighboring Burger King and declared himself "Supreme Chancellor." While his rule and the nation-state may be an ongoing inside joke among the waffle regulars, the cult of personality surrounding Nick could still rival that of all the Kim's: Il-sung, Jong-il and Jong-un combined. Nick's not only one of the most charismatic individuals I've known within the confines of Waffle House, but life in general. While I doubt the validity of his claimed "Doctorate in Xenobiology from MIT," there's no doubt that Nick is also one of the most intelligent people I've met. From fixing your car to theorizing about what you'd list as an "away message" if "AIM" were still around, he's the guy with "clever (and good) solutions to life's problems."
Nick started coming to Kings Waffle sometime in 2009. His then girlfriend lived in Mason, himself a few miles north in Lebanon. Between the two cities, Waffle House was the only restaurant open late at night when he'd make the commute home from her place. After enjoying a "cup of sugar and cream with a hint of coffee" at the high counter on a frequent basis, Nick was assimilated into a "waffle kid" after hearing a group of regulars discuss the television show "Dr. Who."
As he describes it, Nick worked at nearby Kings Island "just long enough to love it." He once spent so much time at his job that he slept on top of a walk in freezer to catch a few hours of sleep between shifts. While I worked there too, the only contact Nick and I had was the occasional head nod and "how's it going?" as we passed each other on the midway. He was a familiar face from work that I'd eventually come to know through the Waffle House rather than the break room.
Today, Nick works as a machinist for the family business alongside his brother and father, manufacturing industrial components. Although his relationship with the girl in Mason ended, Nick keeps coming back for "the people" and "the people watching." Like Nick, you'll come to find that many others in this project will echo his sentiment that they come to Kings Waffle for "the people." The people who have transcended countertop conversation and become close friends. Borrowing a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, he sums up the waffle experience with: "part of the ship, part of the crew."
Keith a.k.a "The Wiz"
I don't think Keith and I ever actually introduced ourselves to each other. Hell, I didn't even know his name was Keith for the longest time, instead I just called him "The Wizard" or "Wiz" like everyone else. Perched out front or sipping coffee inside, Keith is the closest person I know to being a true American cowboy.
He's a man with a million great stories - from fighting in Vietnam, to riots in Tokyo, to building bridges in Arizona to rustling with casino pit bosses in Las Vegas. He's a man of action with a heart of gold, an expert poker player who describes himself as loving "good food and good sex." Originally from Warren County, Keith's been coming to Kings Waffle as long as he can remember. He earned his nickname, "The Wizard," from his friends at the horse tracks due to his penchant for picking winners based on an intricate understanding of the trainers, jockeys, owners and animals themselves.
He comes to Kings to "run into people that you never, ever see unless you come here." He describes the place as an "ex sweet shop for mature people or people that think they're mature." Keith is someone that always has a good time, whether we're buying scratch offs at the neighboring gas station or swapping stories on the curb out front. His unique laugh and cigar add to the ambiance of his stories, stories of a cowboy who once gave some of the most blunt and best advice I've ever heard:
"Ron, I think you're dealt a hand when you're born and you play that motherfucker the best you can."
Daniel a.k.a. "Grober"
The first time I met Daniel, who's more affectionately known by his last name: "Grober," was on a night in the summer of 2011. Stopping by after work, I parked and walked up to some of my friends who were standing around this guy playing a ukelele. He was demonstrating to us an original song he titled: "I wrote this song to get all the ladies (so I could get laid)." Three years later, he'll tell you that his lyrics and prowess with the traditional Hawaiian instrument once actually delivered on the song's goal.
If Grober held a job at Kings Waffle it would undoubtedly be as the ambassador. Grober's smile and handshake are offered to anyone and everyone who stops by. He's one of the most genuinely friendly and kindhearted people I know, a great listener and the man who sports the best beard out of all the Waffle regulars.
Born in Israel in 1993, Grober quickly became a resident of Landen, Ohio. He attended and graduated Kings High School down the street. He's one of the original "waffle kids," a group of regulars who started appearing in the restaurant's booths after practicing and performing in plays at the nearby educational institution. "It sounds bad, but I didn't fit in with a lot of people my own age," says Grober when asked why he started coming here and continues to visit. "I got 'waffle trapped,' but the 'waffle trap' is a great thing." For Grober, it's about the people and the diversity of the people who have come to be here.
"A lot of people come here because they don't have much else. Sometimes you just need another person to distract you from life."
His good nature is reinforced in his part time work at a veterinary clinic and in the way he brings people together. He's responsible for bridging the gap between multiple groups of regulars and the occasional passersby. Often when people are asked what brought them into the Kings Waffle fold, they'll simply tell you: "Grober."
Now a senior majoring in Global Politics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he prefers to order a "bacon, egg and cheese wrap with hash browns on the inside and extra pickles." Grober's the kind of guy who will always share a cup of coffee with you whenever you need it and I'd gladly do the same for him.
There's two countertops at Kings Waffle: low and high. The high counter features raised seats like the kind you'd find at an old school soda shop, while the low counter and its normal chairs wrap around toward the back of the restaurant. At the end of the low counter is Dan's seat and if Dan shows up, you get up and give him his seat.
One of the first times Dan spoke to me, he asked: "hey 'dick head,' are you the one playing this damn music? I can't even hear myself think." It was me and it was a mix of 80's music and a narrow selection of The Red Hot Chili Peppers on the juke box. While Dan and I are now good friends, he still refers to me (although affectionately so) as "dick head."
A Harley motorcycle enthusiast and former long distance driver who delivered freight all over the country, Dan has been coming to Kings Waffle ever since it opened. "[It's] About the only place you can get coffee this late at night," he says. When Dan speaks up from his position at the end of the counter, it's with a purpose - whether that purpose is to make you laugh, tell you a good story or offer some solid advice. Coffee never seems to leave his hands, although on occasion he'll order an egg and cheese biscuit or scrambled cheese eggs. Dan's probably the most regular of the regulars, but doesn't operate on a set schedule. There's a comfort in knowing that you'll probably run into Dan at some point during your visit, that you always have a friend at the end of the counter.
A few nights ago I asked him: "Why do you like this place?" Dan looked me in the eye and gruffly replied:
...just before cracking a slight smile and taking a sip of his coffee.