The Insane Complexity of the Waffle House Plate-Marking System

Waffle House


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Waffle House

The Magic Marker System

Judging by Waffle House's reputation, you'd think the chain's employees already have enough to deal with on a daily basis. Chairs are thrown. People steal. On a good day, you're probably only dealing with rudeness.

Another thing Waffle House employees have to put up with? The Magic Marker System, a way for the staff to secretly communicate orders without any customers knowing about it. 

Why have they done this? Is this the behavior of lunatics? I don't have firm answers on those questions, but I did learn everything I can about this brand new Da Vinci code, and I couldn't believe how intricate it is. Here's everything you need to know about the Waffle House Magic Marker System.

Waffle House grill cook cheat sheet
Waffle House grill cook cheat sheet by Nick Gray (CC BY-SA)

Pull, Drop, Mark

Waffle House employees are trained according to the "Pull, Drop, Mark" system. "Pull" and "Drop" refer to getting hash browns and meats on the grill so they can start cooking. An employee might say something like "Pull one bacon, and drop two in the ring," to get some bacon and hash browns cooking. I love this because it reminds of that adorable Frank and Ernest diner lingo.

"Mark" is where it gets wild, because that's when the Magic Marker System really begins. Get out your notebooks. It's time to become fluent in another language.

eggs, toast, and hash browns
Michele B. / Yelp

1. Eggs and Toast

One vertically-oriented, right-side-up jelly packet on a plate signifies two eggs. If somebody orders one, three, or four eggs, here’s how to mark that:

  • Stick a jelly packet on top of a ketchup packet for one egg.
  • Stick a mustard packet underneath the jelly for three eggs.
  • Stack two jelly packets on top of each other for four eggs.

On a large platter, the jelly packet does the double-duty of explaining how the customer wants their toast and eggs.

  • A jelly packet on the bottom center signifies two eggs, scrambled. 
  • For a light, runny scramble, a mayo packet needs to be placed upside-down above the jelly. For well-done, the packet will be right-side-up.
  • Done-ness of a standard fried egg goes from left to right across the plate. For over-easy eggs, put the jelly packet on the left side of the plate in the center. For over-medium, it goes in the dead center, and for over-well, centered on the right.
  • For sunny side-up, the jelly goes in the center at the top of the plate.
  • Basted eggs (partially cooked on the grill) are denoted with a jelly packet in the center, above the over-easy spot and below the sunny side-up spot.
  • The jelly goes above the scrambled spot and below the over-easy spot for poached eggs.

Confused yet? Scrambled eggs with cheese are a big deal at Waffle House, too. This is the part of the system that makes the least sense to me.

  • For an egg scrambled with cheese, put down a slice of cheese on the plate. There should be one slice of cheese per egg to be cooked.
  • For some reason, you still need to include a mustard packet if there are three eggs. I would have assumed the three slices of cheese convey that message, but I am not the Waffle House wizard/prankster who designed this system.
  • This process gets even stranger, since employees are instructed to tear off a little corner of a cheese slice and put it on top of the jelly. I have absolutely no idea how this is helpful, considering the cheese slices are already there to indicate cheese.

Remember when I said the jelly refers to the toast? Here’s how.

  • Right-side-up jelly packets refer to white toast.
  • Upside-down jelly is for wheat.
  • Swap the jelly for apple butter for raisin toast.
  • For unbuttered toast, put a butter cup under the jelly.
  • If the customer wants a biscuit or Texas toast instead of the standard white toast, put a biscuit or slice of Texas toast on the left side of the plate.

These plates all come with grits and white toast. What if somebody wants to change that up?

  • To add hash browns, a few shreds of hash browns go up at the top of the plate. Same deal if the customer wants sliced tomatoes.
  • For oatmeal, a napkin goes up top, as a landing pad for a bowl.
  • No grits? There’s a smaller plate that you use for this. All you have to do is stick the jelly in the correct position on this plate to show this order has no grits.
  • To skip the toast as well, there’s an even smaller plate. A side dish, essentially.
  • Standard plate with all the fixings except toast? Stick a butter knife diagonally on the plate.

Don’t worry. They’ve also got omelets. A right-side-up jelly packet turned and oriented to the left is the marker for this. Where you put the packet on the plate in this case shows what kind of ingredients the omelet will have.

  • The top of the plate is for ham.
  • The right side is for sausage.
  • The bottom is for bacon.
  • The left is for a no-meat omelet.
  • Cheese under the jelly means a cheese omelet.
  • Salad dressing under the jelly is for a Fiesta Omelet.
  • Here’s an insane one: A right-side up ketchup packet above a jelly packet on top of two slices of cheese means, you guessed it, a cheesesteak omelet.
Waffle house waffles
Lacey Muszynski / Cheapism

2. Waffles

Ah, the restaurant's namesake. Waffles are easier to understand than eggs, but then again, so are most advanced mathematics. These are not to be assembled on plates, but rather on what the guy in the video calls "the cook's board."

  • To show a plain, regular waffle, grab a butter cup and put it down right-side-up.
  • For a double, stack two cups on top of each other.
  • For a pecan waffle, flip the cup over.
  • For chocolate chips, put a few chocolate chips on top of a right-side-up buttercup.

How about the done-ness of the waffle? We'll use mayo for that, obviously.

  • A light waffle will be illustrated with an upside-down mayo pack.
  • Flip the packet right-side-up for a dark, well-done waffle.

And of course, add a syrup packet if it's a to-go order.

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a breakfast sandwich with hash browns
Chris M. / Yelp

3. Breakfast Sandwiches

Waffle House marks its plates of breakfast sandwiches using pickles, an ingredient those sandwiches do not contain. Makes perfect sense.

  • Grab a few pickles and position them on the plate according to which meat the sandwich has. The positions here are the same they were for omelets: up top for ham, right side for sausage, bottom of the plate for bacon, and plain on the left.
  • A slice of cheese means to add cheese.

Here's the part that makes me wanna scream.

  • We're now using MAYO PACKETS to denote eggs. A right-side-up mayo packet means to add eggs. 

Why not jelly? I thought eggs were jelly???

  • These sandwiches are all served with a fried egg. Just like in a breakfast plate, mayo on the left would mean over-easy, in the center would mean over-medium, and on the right, it would mean over-well.
  • For sandwiches on biscuits or Texas toast, just put the corresponding item on the plate.
  • If the customer wants to add lettuce, tomato, or onion, put a leaf of lettuce, a slice of tomato, or a single diced onion on the plate.

Waffle House deals a lot with single diced onions on white plates in this system. These people must all have the eyesight of a hawk. Also: Not sure I want a breakfast sandwich served on a plate that a bunch of pickles just got rubbed all over.

Related: The Best Waffle House Secret Menu Items To Explore

hash browns from waffle house
Tina S. / Yelp

4. Hash Browns

When a breakfast plate includes hash browns, there's a lot of customization that comes with that. These are marked with a few shreds of hash browns up at the top of the plate.

  • For a single order of hash browns on the side, you'd put some tater shreds on the smallest of the three plates. For a double hash brown, use the medium plate, and, yep, use the large one for a triple.
  • For steamed hash browns, add a butter cup to the plate with the shreds.
  • For the infamous "Hashbrowns-All-The-Way," add a right-side-up dressing packet on top of the plate.
  • To add ingredients to your hash, put a piece of that ingredient next to the shreds. 

In one example of this during the video, the instructor places a single piece of white onion next to some potato shreds. Seems like it's begging to get lost.

Related: 11 Spots To Score 4 A.M. Eats

t-bone steak
Cheri Y. / Yelp

5. Dinners

Dinner plates come with hash browns and a piece of grilled Texas toast, and sometimes they include eggs. Here are the secret codes you'll need to know for these riddle plates.

  • For a steak and eggs dinner, you'd start with your classic jelly packet to mark the eggs and toast. 
  • Steaks are marked with a butter cup, placed in one of five spots to mark the temperature. The bottom center of the plate means rare. Above that, medium-rare; up to the direct center of the plate at medium; one more space above that for medium-well; and finally up to the very top for well-done.

Did you think Waffle House only has one type of meat for dinner? No way, baby! This place is like the Cheesecake Factory. They've got it all.

  • A ketchup packet is for a sirloin dinner.
  • An upside-down butter cup is for a ribeye. Right-side-up means T-bone.
  • A right-side-up mustard pack is for a pork chop. Upside-down, it's for country ham.
  • A right-side-up mayo packet is for a burger. And an upside down mayo packet is for ... chicken. Sorta breaks the theme on that one.
  • To show that the customer has ordered a dinner in either the "Southern Classic" or "Country Classic" style, use an upside down dressing packet or a piece of mushroom and diced onion, respectively.
a waffle house burger
Cheri Y. / Yelp

6. Meat Sandwiches, Wraps, and Melts

Burgers, wraps, and melts are also options at Waffle House. To mark one of these plates, it's not much different from what we've already learned.

  • Grab a sandwich plate and use the same system from above, with ketchup, mustard, and mayo packets.
  • Ketchup turned right-side-up is for a sirloin sandwich.
  • Upside-down mayo is for chicken, right-side-up for a burger.
  • Right-side-up mustard is for a pork chop sandwich. Flip it over for a country ham sandwich.
  • Mark that the sandwich needs bacon with bacon. Just kidding! That would be too obvious. You're using a piece of diced ham for that one. Not kidding.
  • Cheese slices, as always, mean to add cheese.
  • For a wrap or a melt, stick either a tortilla or two pieces of Texas toast on the plate.

This entire training video is a surreal experience, but the most chilling part by far is when the dude ends the whole thing by saying, “Remember, we didn't cover every kind of mark that exists.” My word. You absolute mad man.

How insane is it really? Here’s what a former Waffle House grill master has to say about it from a recent Reddit thread: “Most of the people in this thread are missing the context that this system is used in. On a busy weekend morning you can have 4 cooks working the line, and if they had to stop and read all the tickets it'd be incredibly inefficient. This is a system that is essentially a symbolic language and each cook can tell, just by glancing at the plates on the board exactly what they need to do. They can also listen for the keywords related to their station when the order is called. It's actually incredibly efficient."

All I know is that I need to get over to a Waffle House as soon as possible and catch that wacky cypher and glyph system in action.