AUBURN, Ala. and ATHENS, Ga. -- It's a fall Saturday morning in Auburn, Alabama, a couple hours before the Tigers' 11 a.m. kickoff against Ole Miss, and the Auburn Family has come to get whole. Amid entire generations decked out in bright orange and dark blue, in Cam Newton jerseys and striped polos, Amy Beth Presnell says she was whispered to by the Almighty: "We were just walking up toward the stadium, and it was like God was telling me to come in here."
Amy Beth is here because, like all the others, she grew up coming here. It's parents' weekend, so young and old come together to relive old memories and hear about new ones. They stand in line to get in, but they've come this far, and they know the wait is all part of the game-day experience.
This Waffle House in Auburn is a healthy 15-minute walk from Jordan-Hare Stadium, but like other locations across the South, it is an important first stop for many college football fans, a religious experience that is not to be missed.
"The syrup gets in your veins."Waffle House unit manager Hannah Skinner
"I feel like I'm in heaven," Presnell says. "I'm at a Waffle House. In Auburn. And there's no elephants in here."
There are elephants -- Alabama fans -- in here. She just doesn't know it. They're in a lot of Waffle Houses this morning. After all, there's no business that has a more symbiotic relationship with college football fans of every stripe than the Waffle House, the small diners that never close and never change. Around Atlanta, the capital of college football, there are more than 350. Their familiar, monospaced yellow signs serve as mile markers on the roadways. Presnell, 64, a retired nurse with a thick accent and a flair for dramatic delivery, continues her sermon.
"Lord, I've got it bad. I wanna be a greeter [at the Waffle House], but my husband won't let me."
Over at another Waffle House in Athens, Georgia, Hannah Skinner understands the gravitational pull of the place. Her mom has worked for the Waffle House for nearly 25 years. Her sister and brother work there. When Hannah turned 16, she didn't even apply. She just started working, and stayed, other than a brief dalliance with the Olive Garden, which she now regrets. She's 24 and a unit manager, running a store downtown behind the Georgia Theater.
"The syrup," she says, "gets in your veins."
Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, neighbors in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates, started the Waffle House in 1955 in hopes of providing a 24-hour sit-down restaurant for the area. They soon focused on waffles because it was the most profitable of their original 16 menu items.
"It was the highest-profit item you could do, so I said, 'Call it Waffle House, and encourage people to eat waffles,'" Rogers told the Associated Press back in 2005. He also wanted to make it clear at first glance that it wasn't a fast-food drive-through.
"You can't carry out waffles," Rogers said. "They get pretty flimsy. So we thought, 'Waffle House'll work."'
Rogers and Forkner both died this year, just a little more than a month apart. But they saw their tiny diner transform into a Southern icon that has 1,900 restaurants in 25 states.
SEC country is waffle country, with 95 restaurants in proximity to the 14 SEC schools, save for poor Ole Miss and Texas A&M, which don't have one ("We have a lot of great fans there that love Waffle House, but we'll get there eventually," company spokesman Pat Warner says). There are also locations in 11 of the 14 ACC towns, missing only the northern cities of Pittsburgh, Boston and Syracuse.
The company doesn't advertise, instead relying on those small, yellow "WAFFLE HOUSE" squares that appear on nearly every major highway exit sign. Between Atlanta and Auburn, there's one where the Alan Jackson Highway gives way to the Lewis Grizzard Highway. No longer relegated to the side of the road, a Waffle House food truck passes by on the way from Atlanta to Athens for one of the company's increasingly popular catering events (both South Carolina and Auburn have had the Waffle House cater spring events for players, including Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham slinging waffles from the truck).
The chain is also the standard of resolute reliability. Waffle House is famously used as a bellwether by FEMA to determine how well an area is recovering after a natural disaster, based on the status of its always-open restaurants. During Hurricane Irma, 157 Waffle Houses were closed on Sept. 11. By Sept. 13, all but six were open again. The company has generators and "jump teams," with visiting workers dispatched from their location to the affected areas to feed customers and spell local employees taking care of families.
"Regardless of anything else going on, they all stay open unless everything else has to close," said Trevor Daniel, 24, a Georgia fan from Atlanta. "We lost our power. The first thing we did is go to the Waffle House. They were open. Their power's out. But they had a power outage menu. I basically got my same order."
In 2015, the Waffle House added serious culinary cred on the CNN show "Parts Unknown." Host and chef Anthony Bourdain, a distinguished alumnus of the Culinary Institute (almost 100 miles from the nearest Waffle House), declared it "better than the French Laundry."
"It's an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts," he said. "Its warm, yellow glow, a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the South to come inside, a place of safety and nourishment."
Those waffles the founders wanted to move? In 2015, they sold their billionth. The company claims to be the world's leading seller of waffles, of course, but it also claims that title in ham, pork chops, grits and T-bone steaks. The Waffle House serves 2 percent of all the eggs in America every year.
The open kitchen allows customers to see the entire process, from the food out of the refrigerator to the order being shouted to the bacon hitting the grill.
"It's nostalgia in a way," said Jon Maul of Chicago, while visiting his daughter Haley at Auburn, and taking in his second Waffle House visit in 12 hours to make up for the lack of them at home. "It's a slice of America that still exists. It's comforting to come here and see that. If you look around, everybody's happy."
It's a good bet that most of those folks will be within arm's length of the chain's best seller: personalized hash browns. The shredded potatoes are scattered on the grill and can be ordered in any combination, including smothered (with onions), covered (cheese), chunked (ham), diced (grilled tomatoes), peppered (jalapeños), capped (mushrooms), topped (chili) or country (sausage gravy). The brave can go with all of the above.
"There's no goat cheese and garlic here," said Blake Tanner, an area vice president. "Just straight-up eatin'."
Although the number of restaurants has exploded, the tried-and-true shoebox design of the stores, standard since 1962, hasn't really changed, except for local flourishes in college towns. At Waffle House No. 1889, on Epps Bridge Road in Athens, there's a giant bulldog on the side, with Georgia's G logo centered on top of a Waffle and awnings that add "GO DAWGS."
The Waffle House closest to LSU shares a building with a bar. "It's Louisiana, you know?" Warner said. "It makes it convenient for people."
"I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who didn't eat Waffle House."Georgia fan Nick Oshinski
There's an Auburn logo in bricks in front of No. 1882 on West Glenn Avenue in Auburn, and "Bo Over the Top," the iconic photo of Bo Jackson diving over Alabama defenders in the 1982 Iron Bowl victory, hangs over a booth where Tigers coach Gus Malzahn typically has a celebratory omelet after Auburn victories.
"It became his postgame tradition because he's treated like Gus instead of like Coach Malzahn," Warner said. "He just comes in and waits in line like everyone else."
The overall lack of pretense means whether you're the Auburn coach or a Georgia fan, you're just one of the masses waiting for a spot. The booths seat four people. They don't budge. Neither do the stools at the high counter facing the grill. Nobody gets special treatment or cuts the line, or can put tables together. Groups split up. Opposing fans are squeezed in together. New friends are made.
"I've been to Waffle House in Tuscaloosa. I've been to Waffle House in Auburn," said Patrick Ward while sporting a Nick Chubb jersey. "They're the same. They're always welcoming."
His friend Trevor Daniel agreed. "They're very supportive of their local team. But they don't reject people."
Ward, 23, Daniel, 24, and Nick Oshinski, 23, were in a celebratory mood at about 11 p.m. Saturday night in Athens after Georgia's 53-28 dismantling of Missouri, and they provided a perfect window into the late-night Waffle House experience:
Ward: "We're big foodies. There's a lot of options in Athens."
Oshinski: "We are big foodies. Don't think we don't know our food because we're at Waffle House."
Ward: "When you've had a couple of libations, Waffle House is the first thought that goes through your head. Only good things came from Waffle House on a game day."
Daniel: "Waffle House is on my level. It's not beneath me."
Daniel: "If you're uppity, you won't eat Waffle House."
Oshinski: "I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who didn't eat Waffle House."
Daniel: "If you think you're above Waffle House, I don't want to know you. [does impression of a fancy voice] All I eat is eggs benedict. [gestures, spills his water] I just didn't like that water."
Ward: "I'd be lying if I said that wasn't the 100th time that's happened at the Waffle House."
Oshinski: "It's not a Waffle House visit if you didn't spill something. Our waitress is the nicest woman I've ever met. She'll probably be happy she gets the opportunity to help with that."
That Southern hospitality is a trademark of the company. Fans have come to expect the sameness of the traditional retro diner feel and food because employees put a premium on preparing for a volatile 24/7 crowd.
"It's all about football and the holidays for us," said John Tyndall, a district manager in Athens. "Come August, you better be ready."
Brenda Smith, known as BB on her name tag, has worked for Waffle House for 20 years. She tried to leave once but claims she "flunked retirement." She was a single mom who raised two daughters who work for Waffle House now, including Katie, who works alongside her mom in Athens. Together, they've been through the all-important football seasons for six years.
"Everything steps up," Brenda said. "You can feel it in the air. You know how it feels when Christmas is coming? That's what it feels like."
No one knows that feeling more than Kenny Flowers, a unit manager in Auburn. Two years ago, he was a 6-foot-1, 243-pound linebacker for the Tigers. Now he runs a crew feeding the same fans who cheered for him.
"After I graduated here, I got recruited to the Waffle House," he said. "I love being here. I love the fans and the people who come here for Waffle House and Auburn football."
Flowers still looks to be in playing shape, cutting an imposing figure in the kitchen. Where name tags list job titles, Flowers' reads "SEC CHAMP," in a throwback to Auburn's 2013 team.
"Some people just come here to talk football with me," he said. "It's cool to be here on campus where I played. Usually, I have to give multiple reports after the football games."
The company has a playbook for employees that is used to teach its service philosophy. The Waffle House Way, a manual created in 1955, has been updated to address modern changes such as tattoos and cell phones. There's also a playcalling component: When employees stand and call out each order to the grill operators, they use a fascinating code, called the "mark" system.
Using accoutrements such as jelly packets, mayonnaise packets, pickles, cheese and hash brown pieces, grill operators are told what orders go on which plates. A jelly packet at the bottom of the plate signifies scrambled eggs. Raisin toast is signified by a packet of apple butter. A mustard packet facing up means a pork chop. Face-down means country ham. A pat of butter is a T-bone, and its place on the plate determines how the steak cooked, from well done at the top to rare at the bottom.
"Team sports kind of prepare you for the Waffle House," said Greg Bright, Waffle House's Director of People Operations and a former Georgia linebacker who is still second on the Bulldogs' career tackles list. "It's kind of scary a little bit, the parallels. On a daily basis, you're coaching people and developing people."
As part of his job, Bright helps recruit and retain employees, people such as Flowers and Smith. He isn't surprised so many families have multiple members working at his restaurants.
"Is it any different from Kirby Smart?" Bright said, using the Georgia coach to explain growing into your parents' profession. "I grew up playing rec sports against Kirby. His dad was the coach at Bainbridge High School, and Kirby was always around it. Kirby grew up with football all his life, so that's what he gravitates toward."
Georgia fan Buck Jewell, 67, interrupts his report on this year's bumper peanut crop to say he has been attending Dawgs games since 1980. The people are why he comes back to a Waffle House after each one.
"This lady takes care of us, Miss Jeanette," he says, gesturing to Jeanette Savage, who has worked at the Waffle House for 35 years. Gliding by on the way to another table, she nods and replies, "Your food's coming, baby."
Jewell, sitting with his 64-year-old brother-in-law Skip Mathis, is on his second Waffle House meal of the day (eggs over medium, hash browns, country ham in the morning; eggs over medium, hash browns, steak at night). "Just depends on how you're feelin'," he says.
"Just come to Waffle House. It'll make it better."Ole Miss junior Destiny Jamison, as the Rebels are getting crushed by Auburn
Back in Auburn, Destiny Jamison and Gabreena Ruff aren't feeling so great. The Ole Miss juniors from Tuffhaven, Mississippi, made a five-hour drive to Auburn and are the first fans to retreat to comfort food after leaving the game early. It's only halftime, and the Rebels are losing 35-3.
They go into a conversation about what a disappointment the Rebels have been and how they're going to need time to rebuild. The two say they decided they needed something to make the trip worthwhile. They needed to get something they couldn't get back in Oxford.
"Just come to Waffle House," Jamison says. "It'll make it better."