Every manager in operations throughout the company started at Waffle House as a single-unit manager. Every promotion, at every tier, has been from within.
A key to this longevity is the fact managers are offered annual stock options based on a percentage of their compensation. Career stock options are granted at hire and with each promotion.
“We don’t bring anybody in,” Mizell says. “So that creates a strong culture. As you can imagine, if we only promote from within, retention has got to be pretty good, right? We can’t bet on stealing other people’s top management or senior management.”
Waffle House’s single-unit managers can evolve to district, overseeing three stores. And then divisions, with nine. Further up is area and region leaders, which direct anywhere between 20–30 locations and SVP, whose responsibilities cover 60–100 restaurants. EVPs are the level above.
But again, each tenured manager began with one store.
Waffle House leans heavily into performance-based growth. The stock options, in particular, are long-term career investments somebody makes in themselves as well as Waffle House, Mizell says. “We’re a privately held company,” he explains. “So we make money, our stock price goes up. It’s like you have stake in how well your stock does—the better you perform, the better your stock does.”
At the cook level, which Waffle House calls “grill operators,” there are three tiers (master and rock star are the next two up) and the better the skillset, the higher up the pay scale they go. They can become second or third shift supervisors, too. But all cooks are awarded bonuses based on the volume they cook each day. Once certified, pay rates range from $10–$16 per hour.
One of the most fabled of Waffle House’s perks is the “6 Days On, 2 Days Off Guaranteed” schedule it offers to managers. It’s as it sounds—six days on shift, two on break. “That’s kind of unheard of,” Mizell says.
More typical in the industry, at this level, is a “6 and 1” setup. Waffle House rotates the schedule and sets it at the beginning of each year so managers can plot time off, if they choose. So one week, somebody might have Monday, Tuesday off. The next, Tuesday, Wednesday. Etc.
“We take those off days very seriously,” Mizell says. “We do not let people work on them. If you are off, you are off.” District managers cover the days.
Waffle House managers also get three vacations per year. Essentially, they take the six days off three times, which amounts to three 10-day paid vacations.
At some of the senior levels (division manager and up), Waffle House has a “trip rewards” perk that used to be decided by an in-house competition. But in the last year, the chain decided to mirror the rewards systems generally associated with hotel or credit card systems—earn points based on performance and graduate into tiers. As you hit a certain level, kind of like sky miles, you earn a trip where Waffle House fronts a portion of the expenses.
All in, Mizell says, Waffle House’s compensation is competitive even without considering the additional carrots. Unit managers (in charge of a restaurant, with performance-based pay available) earn between $50,000–$65,000; district managers (responsible for two to three unit managers) $70,000–$98,000; and division managers (overseeing two or three district managers) $95,000–$120,000.
For going on 40 years, Boss says, hourly employees have had paid-time off at Waffle House. The company used to call it “vacation pay,” but a new generation of workers didn’t always connect the dots. In the last two years, Waffle House started calling it “paid time off,” and pays it in advance quarterly. Employees can use it however they wish as it accrues an hour for every 30 hours worked starting on day one. “It provides that option for even better flexibility than the flexibility they have with the job,” she says. “They can take a shift that actually fits their lifestyle.” Waffle House is a 24/7 operation and this comes into play with flexibility as well. There are employees, Boss says, who tap late schedules to free up their days.
Plus, workers can switch out shifts and adjust on the go. “That flexibility has always been key to what we offer at Waffle House,” Boss says. “Particularly at the hourly level.”
Continuing on from the 1980s, hourly employees have access to medical, dental, vision, and life insurance (there are three medical plans to pick from). Full-timers are eligible to enroll immediately with coverage beginning 30 days later.
Hourly employees, too, can purchase Waffle House stock for up to 10 percent of their pay after a year on the job. The company offers paid maternity leave of up to eight weeks (after two years). Also, Waffle House has direct deposit or pay cards to provide electronic pay each week.
Mizell says the brand has been working to get fully staffed—or close to it. Dining rooms, at least with social distancing, began to reopen in summer 2020 thanks to Waffle House’s dense Southeast footprint. “The majority of folks did come back,” he says. “We just need a few more to come back.”
Boss adds Waffle House navigated, and continues to address, the realities of today’s hiring climate. One point being the depth of people who left the hourly workforce due to childcare issues. Throughout the pandemic, women have been more likely than men to quit their jobs. Boss says Waffle House “lost a lot of women” who traditionally filled its ranks and were long-term employees.