Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe perseveres in the face of Big Waffle
One of the most iconic restaurants in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, a breakfast establishment occupying prime real estate near the northern edge of the University of North Carolina campus. Ye Olde was founded in 1972 by Linda Chris and her late husband, Jim, who died in 2012. The couple renovated the building using salvaged bricks and timbers sourced from the Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem where the couple had been married just a few years earlier. “Jimmy literally built the bones of the church into the building,” Linda said. The couple worked out the restaurant’s recipes in their kitchen, and prided themselves on the family atmosphere they cultivated among both employees and customers. In recent years, Linda’s adult daughter Melissa has taken over the day-to-day operations of Ye Olde, reflecting a generational shift in the restaurant’s customers. “A lot of my friends have kids now and they’re taking them here,” Melissa says. “Even our new manager has told us, ‘My dad took me here when I was younger!’"
Linda Chris is a warm and empathetic conversationalist, taking care to choose her words well. When I met her and Melissa for an interview at Ye Olde, I noticed she was armed with notes written out in delicate, picturesque script. When she and her husband first set up shop, Linda told me, Chapel Hill “had a bohemian atmosphere.” The city was a hub of progressive politics in the Civil Rights era—Jesse Helms once said that rather than build a zoo, the state could just put a fence around Chapel Hill and let people gawk at the city’s hippies. In the early 1990s it was home to a robust college rock scene that yielded iconic indie bands such as Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. For decades, much of Chapel Hill’s character came from a stretch of independently owned shops, music venues, bars, and restaurants on Franklin Street, which runs parallel to the University and stretches into neighboring Carrboro, a town that these days perhaps even further embodies the community's quirky eclecticism.
During Franklin’s heyday, Linda said, “A lot of the business people would come and frequent the other places. We knew the owners on a personal level.” But in recent years, Chapel Hill’s business community has struggled to maintain this collegial atmosphere. Dozens of iconic establishments, such as the punk-leaning pizza joint Pepper’s and a charmingly dingy restaurant called The Rathskeller, have shuttered their doors, while quirky upstarts have struggled to maintain their footing. (Disclosure: I am a UNC graduate, and was once fired from one of the aforementioned establishments for slacking off.) Meanwhile, national chains such as Starbucks, Noodles & Company, and CVS have gobbled up real estate that those without corporate backing have vacated. A Target is set to open this year on Franklin, and construction on a Hilton will commence in neighboring Carrboro.
In 2013, a Waffle House franchise opened up on Franklin, roughly 500 feet from Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe. It was as if the national chain had launched a hostile takeover. Their prices were lower, their hours longer, and they drew on the appeal of a brand name that extends well beyond town lore. Indeed, the interior of the Waffle House resembles a corporate imitation of Ye Olde’s hard-earned mom-and-pop feel. Where Ye Olde has little need to assert its status as a Chapel Hill staple, the Waffle House’s walls are lined with the sort of generic photos of University landmarks and images of UNC sports teams that parents might buy from the campus bookstore Linda said, “We’ve had people come and say, ‘Your place is nothing like that one.’ We say, ‘We know.’”
“My husband used to say, ‘Don’t worry about the competition. Just do what you do well,’” Linda said wryly. She added, “One thing that’s a little bothersome with franchises is they’re getting their food at prices we can’t even come close to.” Rather than buying ingredients exclusively from national distributors such as Cysco or U.S. Foods, Ye Olde sources the vast majority of their eggs, meat, and vegetables from nearby businesses. “We were doing ‘local food’ before anyone knew [what that was],” Linda said. And while Ye Olde’s prices are slightly higher than Waffle House’s, Linda said, “It’s just like anything else—you pay for what you get.” Still, she lamented, “Some people don’t understand the difference in quality.”
Indeed, the philosophical differences between Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and Waffle House are in many ways encapsulated by my experiences with each while reporting this story. When I called Ye Olde about setting up an interview for this piece, I was immediately put through to the manager, who put me in touch with Melissa, who arranged an interview with her and her mother for the next morning. Meanwhile, when I called Waffle House and asked to speak with the manager about an interview, an employee told me to hold on and then put the phone down. I listened as employees scuttled about for several minutes, my call seemingly forgotten. I also reached out to Waffle House for comment via email, but received no response.
Linda and her daughter pointed out that since Waffle House is open 24 hours, much of its business comes from serving college students looking for a bite to eat after stumbling out of one of the countless nearby bars—a market Ye Olde makes no attempt to tap. Still, Melissa said, Ye Olde has lost business to Waffle House because the two restaurants’ proximity and their similarity in name can confuse customers. “Some people go there because they don’t know [the difference],” she said. “And sometimes people say ‘Ye Olde Waffle House,’ and I’m like, ‘Nooooo! It’s Shoppe!”
By and large, Linda remains optimistic that the wave of corporate expansion in Chapel Hill will eventually recede. “You can’t build a false sense of community—things just have to happen,” she says, adding, “We’re in the tech age, but I think we’re sort of going back to personal connections.”
“Food keeps memories alive. People return [to Ye Olde] because they remember what the food was lie, and they’re really hopeful it’s still good as it was,” Linda said with a note of finality. After I turned my recorder off, Linda and Melissa sat with my photographer and I, telling us stories of Jim Chris’s dedication to both his family and the family business—a spirit Linda and Melissa are determined to carry into the future. As we said our goodbyes, I watched Linda approach a couple sitting at a nearby table and ask how they’re doing and if they need any more coffee. After 45 years, such warmth seemed instinctive.