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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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Multimodal Literacy and the Myth of Low-Skilled Labor at Waffle House

Michael David Measel, Georgia Institute of Technology


Keywords: Sonic Rhetorics, Multimodal Rhetorics, Rhetoric of Music, Occupational Rhetorics. 


"Pull one bacon!" 

          — Anonymous

The learning curve for a Waffle House server can be steep, and even steeper for a cook. The process by which an order cycles from the customer-menu interaction to the final presentation of food is complex, multimodal, and reliant on code-switching. Many folks like myself who have been both an employee and customer at Waffle House (Figure 1) can’t help but recognize the multimodal experience to which we’re exposed every time we enter. Although the experience is somewhat like hearing multiple languages at once, it is familiar and inviting. And it is never without surprises. For this essay, I’ve interviewed three Waffle House staff members including one customer/former server (Myfawny Sierra Ruiz), one server/cook (Kaitlyn Ortiz), and one cook/Unit Manager (Neely Dixon).[1] My goal with this research is twofold: 1) to paint a rounded picture of the multiple lenses from which various individuals encounter the multimodal rhetoric embedded in the Waffle House experience, and 2) to challenge the myth of low-skilled labor in food service by demonstrating that Waffle House has a complex multimodal system that cooks must learn as well as code-switching mechanisms that servers must adopt, making it a workplace that pays little but requires sharp rhetorical skills.


A lit-up Waffle House and sign before a purple sky.
Figure 1: Waffle House, parking lot, and sign at dusk.


I will first explore with Myfawny Sierra Ruiz what makes the Waffle House such a familiar and comforting setting to many of us, across cultures. I will then explore the complex multimodality and code-switching that create a steep learning curve forcooks and servers, with a deep dive into Neely Dixon’s (2021) comparison of Waffle House’s marking system to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Finally, I will explore with Dixon and Kaitlyn Ortiz employees’ reliance on memory and discipline, as well as benefits of extended time in the kitchen.


The Talk around the Kitchen

Myfawny Sierra Ruiz (2021) will help to establish how there is a place for all of us at Waffle House, and thus a place for all of us to interact in its multimodal rhetoric. Each of us is a key player in what Brett Lunceford (2011) appropriately deems the “drama of Waffle House” (p. 457). Ruiz (2021) also extensively ruminates on the “intimacy” of the Waffle House setting. It is a familiar space in which we expect repetition and seemingly simple images conjure up notions of family, friendship, and fun… and for some of us, grading.

Lunceford is by no means alone in using language of theater performance to describe the various roles that individuals play in the restaurant experience (Dixon, 2021; Ruiz, 2021; Pegoda, 2022). Andrew Joseph Pegoda identifies “layers of performance and ritual” in the “clearly defined roles” for parties in the restaurant setting (2022). This performance extends to the restaurant staff. The technical language staff use with each other and with customers is particular to each role and dependent on the role of the individual to whom they are speaking. Delineations between roles in the Waffle House setting, particularly between server, cook, and customer, become especially evident when a customer – often a former employee – takes it upon themselves to order in an unexpected code, as if they were one of the servers, using the language of marking or even the full Pull-Drop-Mark call-in system.

Lunceford (2011) recognizes the Waffle House kitchen as simulacrum (p.449), and my research – the interviews with Ruiz (2022) and Dixon (2022), in particular – supports this assertion. Not only does the open kitchen at Waffle House represent a wealth of meanings beyond the immediate functions of its parts. Pieces of the kitchen – plates, napkins, sauce packets, a slice of cheese or even a few shreds of hashbrowns – denote the meaning of an order for all cooks on the line. The specific placement and direction in which these items are rotated changes their meaning for line cooks, while they may not change in meaning for others who happen to see them. Only those who know the visual code are privy to it. Ortiz (2022) reflects in our conversation that beyond all this, the Waffle House experience can even represent family and history.

The complexity of restaurant work can be staggering. Gary Alan Fine argues that the self-determined identities in which restaurant workers envelop themselves fall under the category of “occupational rhetorics” (1996, p. 90). He identifies cooking as a “multidimensional occupation” in which the rhetorical possibilities are complex and largely dependent on the cook’s imagination of their own situation. In addition, Tony Mirabelli explores the myth of low-skilled labor in restaurants, demonstrating how food service employees exhibit complex rhetorical skills tied to their success in restaurant-bound identities. I argue that the same is true of Waffle House, and that the restaurant’s open kitchen model makes this plain for us to see any time we visit. Our servers and cooks are not low-skilled workers; they are rhetorical heroes.


Intimate Rhetoric, Diverse Customers, and Appeals to Rhythm

There is a comfortable familiarity to the Waffle House experience that brings audience members, if you will, from all walks of life to dine in the restaurant and watch the show. As Myfawny Sierra Ruiz (2021) put it to me, part of Waffle House’s appeal is that customers are reasonably confident they can rely on a “home-town familiarity”:

They’re pretty consistent, so no matter where you go, you can expect the same experience, and – I don’t know – for me, everyone is just so efficient at what they’re doing…almost like a dinner show, watching everyone while they do their job is almost, like, a breakfast show for me.

But you don’t have to be from a hometown to feel at home there. Myfawny continued, focusing on the inclusive atmosphere of Waffle House:

There’s such a diverse range of people who come in here, whether it’s like the 70-year-old couple that comes in for breakfast on Sundays vs. 3 a.m. and the drunk college student. Everyone is welcome. No matter whether you’re wanting breakfast or if you’re wanting to sober up, there is a seat for you at the Waffle House.

Diverse customers are drawn to the comfortingly predictable elements ranging from the layout of the restaurant to the smell of the food:

There’s something so, like, comforting about the smell of a waffle. It’s morning time, you’re starting your day, and it’s like you get a little hug in the morning from the smell of the waffle.

I argue that it’s what Myfawny calls the “intimacy” of Waffle House’s rhetoric and familiar open-concept design that makes the restaurant chain consistently inviting to a wide customer base. She tells me,

I think there’s almost like an intimacy in the rhetoric because it’s so familiar. Even just from a customer’s perspective, because everything is so consistent, there’s almost a comfort to the point where we don’t know anyone here, we’re having conversations, we’re asking other people’s opinions, getting to know them. I mean, it just feels almost more intimate than going to a bar.

For me, that intimacy begins with sound. I’ve always possessed a love for sound, and it is the first sense that I dove hopelessly deep into. I’ve been studying it all my life, and perhaps that’s because as humans we generate sound: we can’t get away from it. We are musical instruments feeding on each other’s breath. Ben Harley (2018) puts it best: “Sound is, by its very nature, intimate. It enters our ears and bodies, it resonates in our chests, it puts us into the mindset of others, and it breaks down borders between individuals. When we speak, sound resonates deep within our bodies through our throats into the air and into the bodies of others. This is intimacy” (p. 44). The collective acts that we engage in via sound determine the quality of our environment and the rhythms we live in, including who we interact with and how we approach others. As Harley concludes, “The intimacy of sound helps to build community” (44). Sounds determine how we make meaning and how we feel about ourselves.

Waffle House’s rhetoric comes to us in rhythmic waves. We might say the intimacy of Waffle House’s complex rhetoric is generated through our experience of what Leonard Meyer refers to in music as the principle of “good continuation.” We expect uninterrupted repetition, or [relatively] good continuation, of a series of musical notes when its context remains unchanged (92), with some outlying exceptions. I argue that the same is true of the rhythmic rhetoric we encounter every time we bring ourselves to Waffle House (these visits falling into yet another rhythm). According to David Huron’s (2006) explication of musical expectation theory, such abundant repetition of sound that doesn’t lead to stagnation can create and fulfill expectations in the audience, which themselves tend to generate “positively valenced prediction responses” (p. 24).[2]

Huron (2006) asserts that the same principles underlying musical expectation theory support a general theory of expectation that applies to all stimuli with which we interact. This, of course, includes the many (countless, really) modes of communication, including those we teach.[3] We generate in response to life’s rhythms expectations of good continuity, and violation of those expectations trigger reactions in us that are evolutionarily rooted in the fight/flight/freeze response (Huron, 2006, pp. 11, 37). Thus, as Tom Rice (2015) writes, “Considered from an evolutionary perspective, listening is a valuable survival skill. It facilitates the avoidance of danger” (p. 101). According to Huron (2006), situations that prove not to be dangerous, even when they violate an expectation of continuity, offer a chance for the listener to respond differently. Subsequently to original responses, the listener can consciously evaluate the situation in the “appraisal response,” resulting in a new positive or neutral affect (pp. 11, 29, 37, 39). The resulting mix of limbic responses exhibits “contrastive valence” (p. 22).

The human condition demands that all who enter Waffle House (save for service animals, I suppose) experience the world in time, and as we constantly reorganize our experiences in the construction of meaning, they fall into rhythms even if rhythms weren’t evident before. Life in its turn imitates art, and we thus we begin what Kenneth Burke calls “swinging along” with the form (1969, p. 58). With our potential for varying positively and negatively valenced prediction and appraisal responses, and the personal associations we make with the associated stimuli, the potential for polysemy in the Waffle House environment is enormous.  The Waffle House sign, the building, the menu, the kitchen, and even the friendly staff become simulacra to restaurant goers. The staff participates into what Lunceford called the “drama of Waffle House,” whether intentionally or no, via the roles they represent to customers. They play the roles of our friends and family: a reliable group of familiar personalities, always ready when we stop by with a cup of coffee and a smile. But somehow, and perhaps this is due to a great deal of cooperative action that perpetuates itself, there seems to be a trend of friendly smiles, welcoming hellos, and interesting conversations waiting for a fresh voice to jump in. The Waffle House staff may not be my blood relatives, but to me that place feels like home.


Multimodality and Code-Switching in the Evolution of a Waffle House Order

Myfawny brought us to the heart of the matter when she described Waffle House rhetoric thusly: “Whether it’s a graphic language, written language, or talking to the server, it’s in, like, this multimodal way where anybody can understand it.” She went on to unpack her assertion:

That’s the reason they’re able to be so efficient, because the language doesn’t change, whereas our own English language, it’s changing every day and evolving. It helps form that intimacy because it’s not complicated. Once you get down the rhythm of everything, it’s understandable and the customers are hearing it. They’re used to hearing these calls, they’re used to the way in which all of this process happens, and because it’s consistent across this whole network of restaurants, it’s this whole multimodal ecosystem within itself.

To give some context to Myfawny’s detailed description of the multimodal rhetoric involved in the ordering process at Waffle House, let’s trace a food order from its origin in the customer-menu interaction to its return when the wait staff presents the restaurant’s product. We begin with multimodal rhetoric on the menu (Figure 2), which presents a combination of verbal food labels, verbal descriptions, and images of plated food items.


A Waffle House menu shows images of

Figure 2: Multimodal standard menu from Waffle House with text and images.


A server smiles as she takes two also-smiling customers' orders.
Figure 3: Waffle House server taking customer’s order, holding Waffle House server notepad.


In the terminology of Ferdinand de Saussure (1959), the images and words are “signifiers” that work in combination to represent a common “signified” (p. 67) for each food item. If everything goes right with the order, the customer eventually receives the referent. The customer orders a two-egg breakfast with bacon. How does she want her eggs? Sunny side up. Grits or hashbrowns? Hashbrowns. The server writes down the customer’s order (Figure 3) on a special notepad designed by Waffle House. The order ticket consists of a grid designed to be filled out in a specific code that significantly differs from the code in which the order was placed (Figure 4).


A ticket showing orders, special instructions, and charges.
Figure 4: Waffle House server ticket with shorthand for customers’ food orders.


After filling out the ticket with abbreviations and symbols like lines and slashes, the server stands on one of two specific marked spots on the kitchen floor, faces the cook line, and calls their order to the cooks. The cook closest to the server listens for the order and repeats it back to the server for confirmation. The order comes in three steps: Pull, Drop, Mark. “Pull one bacon” indicates that three bacon slices need to be pulled out of the cooler and placed on the grill. “Drop a hashbrown” indicates that one order of hashbrowns should go down on the grill next, and if there are modifications like smothered or covered, these will be called. Finally, “Mark an order up plate!” indicates that the customer wants one “order” of two eggs and that those eggs need to be cooked sunny-side-up. The word “plate” indicates that the order will come with hashbrowns, so there won’t be a separate bowl of grits. The substituted hashbrowns will go on the plate with the rest of the food, so everything will come out on one dish.


A line of employees make plates.
Figure 5: Cooks at a Waffle House in North Carolina prepare food after a hurricane. The leftmost cook marks plates while center and rightmost cooks prepare order.


After confirming the order with the server, the leftmost cook marks dishes visually according to what should go on them (Figure 5). This is when various items in the Waffle House kitchen become almost absurdly polysemic for cooks, as well as anyone else privy to the plate marking code). For me, this is the heart of the multimodal process. The cooks have heard the order called to them, it is sometimes called again between them, and at the same time they are visually marking plates and responding to those markings. While listening and speaking all the time, the cooks are placing cheese, napkins, hashbrown shreds and other items in various locations and positions, flipping them here and rotating them there, to indicate the nuance of each customer’s order. A multimodal diagram of instructions colloquially referred to as the “marking menu” (Figure 6) is posted up near the cook line to remind Waffle House cooks about some of the complex details the plate marking system.


A graphic that shows different foods and how to indicate order instructions.
Figure 6: Multimodal Waffle House marking menu with text and images indicating how to mark plates.


Often these cooks have also heard the original order being placed by the customer. This is a complicated verbal-visual experience that requires consistent sharp attention. And here, we’ve only discussed a simple order. As you likely well know, things can get pretty complicated in a restaurant order, and the Waffle House code responds with complexity in turn. As Mirabelli (2004) notes, “A seemingly simple event such as taking a customer’s food order can become significantly more complex, for example, when a customer has a special request” (p. 541). The “Earl Special” at our local store in Boone, NC comes to mind.

Finally, when the server delivers the order to the customer (Figure 7), they often announce the names of food items in the way in which they are labeled on the menu. This usually is the code in which the customer originally placed their ordered. Each dish has a particular visual design that matches what is seen on the menu while the name of the item is being repeated, reinforcing that multimodal rhetoric with which the ordering process began. Thus, the customer’s order has gone through multiple manipulations including verbal and textual code-switching as well as oscillation in and out of multimodal rhetorical situations.


A server whose head is cropped out hands a plate to a customer.
Figure 7: Waffle House server delivering completed food order, likely repeating the code in which it was first placed.


Hieroglyphics, Multimodal Literacy, and Efficiency

Neely took our interview in a new and unexpected direction when he brought scholarly theory to bear on his experience as a Waffle House cook (Dixon, 2021). Likening the marking system to hieroglyphics, he said,

Much in the way that some Egyptologists argue that hieroglyphics were a more efficient communication system because the pictograms can communicate multiple meanings all at once in a way that a letter or a word can’t necessarily do. What do I mean by that? Well, with egg orders at Waffle House, typically you’re denoting an order for eggs with a jelly packet. Now, the number of jelly packets is gonna tell you how many eggs. The location of that jelly packet on the plate is going to tell you how they’re cooked. And, whether or not the jelly packet is sitting on top of a butter is going to tell you whether the toast that goes with those eggs is dry or not.

So you’re looking at one single object on a plate, but it’s actually communicating several different things at once. So in a way, it’s almost more efficient than your standard alphabetical language. And an added bonus is you can see them from a lot farther away. Typically, in a restaurant, you’ve got tickets. They’re very small. You’ve gotta walk right up to them and squint at the ticket. But, I can see a mark on a plate from three yards away.

Inevitably, servers, managers, and customers can see the marking system, as well. We may not register specific meanings all the time, but at the very least there is a mystery to what kind of code those cooks are using with each other. And, amusingly enough, sometimes we see well-seasoned servers correcting cooks on some of their marking. Kaitlyn Ortiz is one of these.

Of course, there are varying levels of literacy among individuals on the Waffle House floor. Although some are fully versed in the necessary code-switching and multimodality that Waffle House demands in a successful employee, not every staff member is fluent in all of the branches of the restaurant’s complex yet efficient communication system. Neely explained, “You will have cooks who maybe necessarily don’t understand the shorthand that the servers are writing on the tickets because they never hold or read a ticket for the most part; they hear them called aloud. At the same time, you have servers that cannot understand the marks that are on the plates because they don’t really need to.” The most demanding role in terms of mastery of communication may be that of the expeditor: “A manager on a very busy day will fulfill the role of expeditor. This is somebody who’s kind of bringing all the languages together.” A manager would need to be fluent in all of these communication variants correctly, as well as be good at we tend to liberally refer to as “multitasking.”

When I asked Neely if he thought the multimodal rhetoric surrounding a Waffle House order made the restaurant more efficient, he emphatically replied,

Absolutely. I think there’s been research done that says for corporate sit-down restaurants, Waffle House has some of the lowest ticket times of any. A server can get an order from a customer and without even turning on their heel to walk away from the table can scream the order across from the restaurant, and within the next thirty seconds, it’s gonna start being cooked. Now, in no other restaurant is that gonna happen. The server’s gonna have to turn around, wait in line for the kiosk for the point-of-sale system, slowly peck in their order on the touch screen, then it’s gonna feed out on the tickets, then they’re gonna put the ticket up onto the window, and eventually look at it, read it, and start cooking it. But at Waffle House, you’re almost forced to deal with each ticket in order to get it out of the way. And, the calling system helps control the pace.

A system of proven efficiency like Waffle House’s doesn’t come about out of nowhere. There is a history behind this tale of multimodality. Neely made sure to inform me all about it:

Waffle House did not always have a mark system. They always had a calling system. So, in the past there were cooks that would literally cook just by memory. And, I’ve heard it said that during that time you had a higher caliber of cook because only really, really sharp cooks could do it. But, eventually I think they instituted a mark system because people were sort-of starting to do that already. They were setting up the plate like a target for the food to land on. Certain size plates… a smaller plate, you knew that would be a side order; a larger size plate the size plate – Yes, sir. Have a good one! Thank you [Neely says goodbye to a customer who was leaving].

I think the marking system was borne out of something that happens in lots of restaurants. When cooks start to cook in order, one of the very first things they’ll often do is throw down their palette, or their landing pattern, the target. That is the plate it’s going on. So if you’ve got a fish plate that’s the right size for fish, you know that, probably, fish is going to land on it. So, the plate itself is already reminding you about something you need to cook. So, it’s not a bridge too far to go from there and throw a few jelly packets, some ketchup packets and syrup packets on there to help you remind you of some other things as well.

Kaitlyn Ortiz’s personal story below offer greater insight into history of Waffle House’s marking system.


Memory, Discipline, and the Myth of “Low-Skilled” Labor

Up to this point in the conversation with Neely, things were going pretty much as I’d expected. But then, the interview took a pleasantly surprising turn when I asked Neely about the effects, if any, that working at Waffle House has had on his memory. The rhetorical connections drew themselves as he spoke:

Oh man. My Waffle House memory, absolutely. I mean, just having a context for it, I am light-years faster than when I first started. As far as improving my short-term memory overall, I think I would actually say yes. Because nowadays, when people speak to me, I find myself sort-of calling back what they’ve just said to me in my head. I can’t help it. It’s force of habit. Almost word-for-word.

After a bit of banter, we settled on ‘echoing’ as an appropriate descriptor.

It was then that Neely brought the conversation full circle, demonstrating for me why I had come to interview him. He’d hit me with what still feels to me like an enduring purpose for this research. He said,

There’s actually a fascinating book. It’s called Orality and Literacy and I think it’s by Walter Ong. He talks a lot in that book about how literacy as a technology did come without certain drawbacks. It wasn’t all benefit. It has in some ways hurt people’s memories, the technology of writing. He talks about written works that come from what you’d call a primarily oral culture. So you’re talking about the Iliad, Odyssey. When they say “the wine-dark sea,” that’s formulaic. It’s almost like a call. You know, Waffle on three. The wine-dark sea. It’s a way of nesting the words into a nice little package so that the mind has something to grab on to.

One of the most interesting things in the book… he’s talking about storytellers who come from primarily oral cultures. If they tell a story and they tell it again at a later date, it might be slightly different, and the order might be changed, but it’s essentially the same exact story, because they’re using formulas to remember what leads to next. But these people, if you ask them if they’re giving it verbatim, word-for-word, they insist that they are. They insist that they are because they have no way of knowing otherwise. They do not have this technology.

Clearly Neely is well educated, whether through formal or autodidactic means, or both. In fact, he earned his BA in Math and Science from Lees-McRae College. Despite that – or perhaps inspired by it – has chosen a career as a cook that does not require a college degree. In his role as a successful Waffle House employee, Neely challenges the stereotype that you need to go to focus on higher education and occupations designed for college graduates in order to read well, communicate clearly, and apply scholarly concepts to real-world situations.

Our conversation took a natural turn from the technology of writing to the challenge of managing multiple forms of communication. Detailing the difficulty of working on the cook line at Waffle House, Neely told me,

It takes a certain amount of discipline and control to hold it all together. We will often insist that only one server talk to us at a time. One of my pet peeves is when somebody’s calling an order right behind me and I can hear somebody loudly giving his order to another server, because yeah, it can kind of get all jumbled in your head and I think that’s when the marks really come in handy because you have that visual aid to kind of combat all the word jumble that’s going on around you.

One of the ironies about working at Waffle House is I think, for whatever reason, there’s a perception that sort-of bottom-of-the-barrel workers are the ones who work at Waffle House. But, the fact of the matter is that people who don’t have a head on their shoulders do come here and work, but they’re not gonna last. Having worked here for almost four years, I’ve noticed that the people that really succeed at Waffle House are clever. It’s fast-paced and it’s mentally taxing, and if you don’t stay organized, you’ll get swamped really fast.

Once again, Neely informed me of why we were here: to debunk the myth of low-skilled labor. So, of course, when I asked him if he thought that entry-level positions at Waffle House were low-skilled, his response reflected the complexity he had repeatedly identified in Waffle House rhetoric. Neely replied with an unequivocal “No,” explaining,

I’ve heard it said that they judged the amount of stress in a job by the number of decisions per minute that you make. So, teachers, air traffic controllers, and cooks and servers are all high up on the decisions-per-minute scale. At Waffle House especially, we don’t have actual tickets to reference. The orders are called. Unlike most restaurants, where there’s a point-of-sale kiosk where the servers enter their orders and then it spits it out a ticket machine to the kitchen so the cooks have a ticket to reference, at Waffle House, there is only handwritten ticket which the server, him or herself, will hold on to, they will call that order aloud to the cooks, and then the cooks from there will mark a reminder, which is something like a hieroglyphic, on a plate. With the help of those marks on the plate, they’re able to remember the orders that the servers have called and prepare them.

While the potential for difficulty in the learning house learning curve is evident, some people do take naturally to the system. But how much can that apparently natural ability be attributed to long-term exposure to the multimodal Waffle House experience? When I interviewed Kaitlyn Ortiz (2022), she surprised me saying, “It [the multimodal process] really is complex. I mean, because it takes people a long time to order. But it’s really simple, Like, if you don’t think about it, then it’s simple. If you think about it, then it gets hard.”

I was fascinated with Kaitlyn’s assertion that it is almost a choice on the part of the server or cook to make the process difficult, when this can be avoided by keeping a cool head and not overthinking an order. I’d call this being in the zone and just relying on one’s own memory and skills. Kaitlyn explained part of why a Waffle House order can potentially become complicated: “We write it down the way we read it [to the cooks], but we have to ask a lot of questions of the customer to know what to write down specifically. I do [enjoy calling the order to the cooks] because people look at me like, What did she just say? I like it.”

Even with the marking system, Kaitlyn is very confident and finds the visual rhetoric of plate marking to be fairly simple. She told me, “The only thing that I found difficult to pick up was the sandwiches, like the Texas melt and the hamburgers, the cheeseburgers, and the chicken. The breakfast plates are like super easy. It’s just a jelly packet, and it goes, like in a circle. And it’s the same with the sandwiches too, except there’s like five things you’ve got to put down, and it’s just for one sandwich.” I couldn’t help but admire Kaitlyn’s sheer confidence when she exclaimed, “I kinda am [a chef]. I’m pretty good.”

Kaitlyn is an example of a Waffle House employee who doesn’t find the restaurant’s multimodality to be particularly difficult to master, but we must recognize that she has been exposed to this matrix of communication since before the marking system’s inception. According to her:

I mean, my mom worked at Waffle House until I was 14. When my mom was working here, they didn’t have it [the marking system]. I think when I first started seeing the marking system, I was not even eleven or twelve years old. I am 26 now. So, my mom could remember a whole order without marking a single thing. So, some cook at some Waffle House somewhere made the marking system so that he could remember. It was kind of like his thing, and now it’s like, the Waffle House thing.

And finally, because I simply couldn’t resist the possibility of a great takeaway, I asked how Kaitlyn’s mother’s memory was now. Not surprisingly, she proudly perked up again: “She [mom] does have a good memory. It’s weird, but I think it’s gonna help her in the long run. Waffle House can do a lot!”


The Myth of Low-Skilled Labor

There has existed for far too long a widespread misconception that restaurant work is a “low-skilled profession” (see Mirabelli). Paying special attention to the complicated rhetorical environment in which restaurant cooks interact with each other and staff in surrounding roles, including servers, Gary Alan Fine asserts that “cooks can draw on images of being professionals, artists, businessmen, or manual laborers – rhetorical images that depend on the conditions of work” (1996, p. 93). It seems only appropriate following this research that it is incumbent upon us to add another image to this list that we can employ for ourselves and recognize in others: that of the rhetor, a master of one particular rhetoric, a rhetoric that applies to food preparation, profile, and presentation.

How we interact with individuals in these roles is inherently connected to how we perceive them. Tony Mirabelli states the case succinctly when he writes, “There is complexity and skill that may go unrecognized by the general public or institutions such as universities” (2004, p. 144). Not only cooks but servers and management, as well, labor in demanding professional roles that can prove to be quite the opposite of “low-skilled” (p. 144). To again quote Mirabelli, “How the waitress or waiter understands and uses texts such as the menu and how she or he ‘reads’ and verbally interacts with the customer reflect carefully constructed uses of language and literacy” (p. 145). As Myfawny, Neely, Kaitlyn and I have demonstrated here, the myriad ways in which Waffle House staff utilize multimodal rhetoric and code-switching are no exception.

Many of us know already that the widespread misconception about restaurant work being a low-skilled profession is of course largely untrue. However, there is always someone uninformed about the complexities of restaurant work who can grow from exposure to this complicated rhetoric. We all can grow from a regularly reinforced understanding of the dedication and long hours of difficult labor that go into every single shift for the professionals who occupy these roles. Sometimes these individuals have the same degrees that we do. Sometimes they are us.


Final Thoughts

I hope to revisit this research in the future with an eye toward closely analyzing the details of Waffle House’s multimodal system. Its aural and visual rhythms can be explored in detail for rhythmic appeal. Its media and design can also be analyzed using the multimodal theory of Paul Dan Martin, focusing on the heuristics of structure and form. Conclusions drawn from further research can be applied to analysis of other institutional rhetorics inside and outside of the food service sector.

I found in my research a curiously low ratio of articles concerning the myth of low-skilled labor in proportion to those directly associating that myth with immigration issues and the ways that we may be politically oriented toward viewing migrant workers as “low-skilled.” I hope that a larger conversation grows in the scholarly community and elsewhere that seeks to address what this often detrimental, however descriptive, term means and perhaps should mean in relation to its implied counterpart, high-skilled. The myth of low-skilled labor as it pertains to both migrant and non-migrant workers needs to be explored further through avenues that touch not only the scholarly community but individuals working in low-wage restaurant positions as well as countless other roles associated with “low-skilled” professions.



Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. University of California Press.

Getty Images. (2021.) Cooks at a Waffle House in North Carolina prepare food after hurricane [Photograph]. Forbes, 2020/04/26/with-georgia-diners-set-to-reopen-waffle-house-braces-for-a-slow-recovery/?sh=4affecd818af

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[1] My interview with M. S. Ruiz is available online at, and my interview with Neely Dixon is available online at My interview with Kaitlyn Dixon remains unpublished.

[2] For more on rhythmic or “sequential” appeals, see Maxi Kupetz (2014).

[3] For more on musicality and language, see Michael David Measel (2021) and Steven B. Katz (1996).