Jennifer Payne was skeptical last year when she heard that her bosses at Waffle House wanted to offer candlelit Valentine's Day dinners at the unit she managed in northern Fulton County.
"Ain't nobody gonna come to Waffle House for Valentine's Day," she thought. "And if they do, it's because the guys are cheap."
Cheap or not, the couples came — some of them in dresses, coats and ties — and so did TV news crews. The promotion proved so successful that Waffle House is expanding it this year to 32 restaurants, including 10 in metro Atlanta.
Pink signs at participating locations invite customers to "get scattered, smothered and covered" in romance. Reservations are encouraged.
The idea originated with Calvin Stokesbary, a division manager for the Norcross-based chain. The trick was how to make a sunny-side-up diner seem more cozy and intimate for the big evening.
At the first unit last year, on Jones Bridge Road in Johns Creek, each booth got a red or white tablecloth and a candle. White globe lights were covered in red paper to give the place a rosy glow. The jukebox was unplugged and replaced with CDs of gauzy music.
"I bought them at Wal-Mart," says Payne, now a district manager. "It was elevator music, really."
The staff was decked out in red ties. In deference to the occasion, servers and cooks were asked to communicate their orders sotto voce instead of using the usual Waffle House bark.
As V-Day approached, Payne remembers, "We got inundated with calls. You could hear them giggling on the other end of the line."
One of her regulars, a contractor, laughed at the notion that he would take his wife to Waffle House for Valentine's. A couple of hours later, she phoned in and made a reservation.
One couple drove all the way from Chattanooga.
"Our second-shift volume was three times what it normally is," says regional vice president Derrick Hooper.
What's more, customers actually acted like it was a special night. While the menu and prices were the same, couples passed up eggs and patty melts for bigger-ticket items like steaks and chops — "our major meats," Payne says.
This year, Waffle House is adding a new wrinkle: Photographers will take pictures of the short-order lovebirds.
But there's one thing they won't be doing again. Last year, Payne bought some red food dye at Kroger and mixed it in the waffle batter. The waffles came out pink.
"People said they looked like Pepto Bismol," she says.
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