“The Underappreciated Architecture of Waffle House”

Waffle House recently announced plans for a fancier new building in New Orleans. One journalist suggests this undervalues the chain’s existing architecture:

Waffle House is not Chartres Cathedral, admittedly, but it has a certain architectural je ne sais quoi. The classic Waffle House is minimalist in design, with a lemon-yellow strip running around the top, above a wide band of windows and, often, a red or red-striped awning. The interior is outfitted with retro globe lights and red-and-chrome stools. Unlike most fast-food joints, Waffle House has an open kitchen, so you can watch the cooks as they scatter and smother your hash browns…

New Orleanians will be excited to get a Waffle House in Mid-City, and I would never begrudge them that. But this new design is all wrong for Waffle House as a brand, and falls short of its status as a Southern icon.

The company owes that status to an architect you’ve never heard of, Clifford A. Nahser. A World War II veteran and Georgia Tech graduate, Nahser was still a fledgling architect when Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. approached him for help designing his prototype diner in Avondale Estates, near Atlanta. As the chain grew, Nahser went on to design hundreds more restaurants, drawing up the plans in his basement after his day job at Atlanta Public Schools…

What bothers me is not that Waffle House feels it’s time for a change (maybe it is) so much as the direction they’ve chosen. As the “loft” aesthetic has permeated American culture, we’re seeing watered-down faux-warehouse details in outposts of Chipotle and Starbucks, and that is the style we see here. It’s as generic as the classic Waffle House look is distinctive. Couldn’t the company have hired an architect known for his or her use of bold color to bring more of a pop sensibility?

There seem to be two main issues at play here:

1. How much should restaurant chains (and for that matter, retail chains as well) look alike or different? Waffle House has a very recognizable logo as well as a common design aesthetic. How much does this help the brand in terms of sales, nostalgia, recognition? Does a chain benefit from looking significantly different than other chains or should there be some similarity so people feel they can comfortably cross over?

2. How much do architectural movements – here, a more minimalistic and modernist design – get translated into fast food restaurants? I’ve argued before that Americans don’t particularly like modernist homes but perhaps this kind of modernist architecture is associated with a particular industry (fast food) that arose in the post-World War II era of prosperity and highways. The architecture and landscape of interstates and suburban sprawl is often criticized so how many people would defend the look of Waffle House?

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