There’s no telling what you might hear or see at downtown Atlanta’s "Underground", a 43-year-old shopping and entertainment district that’s seen better days. Its crime rate is high, and decades of efforts to make the area safer have seen mixed results.
That’s why for the past few months the 24-hour Waffle House restaurant in the thick of Underground Atlanta has been charging customers a 20 percent premium on their bill. It’s a surcharge meant to keep the peace in a restaurant that can sometimes get raucous.
During a recent nighttime visit, customers could hear a waitress and a customer argue, a solo diner offer a less than flattering take on Hillary Clinton, and an elderly man instantly turn defensive when someone asked him what was in the half-dozen bags attached to his motorized scooter. By Underground standards, this was an exceptionally calm night.
In addition to the colorful goings-on, customers also can’t help but notice a laminated sign tucked in the condiment caddy: “All orders at this location will include a 20 percent security surcharge in addition to tax.”
“We didn’t want to hide it,” says Pat Warner, Waffle House’s Vice President of Culture. “We thought this was the best approach to let people know why the prices here will be higher.”
Hiring off-duty police cost about $160,000 a year, says Warner. That’s about a dollar for every five that goes into the register, and too much for the location to just absorb.
“It’s about $100,000 more than the rent we pay for this restaurant,” Warner says. If there’s been a drop-off in business from the surcharge, it’s been small, according to Warner.
Spread out in front of 28-year-old Ernest Matthews are eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles and toast. He says the cost for his meal is “approximately $12-something.”
Add the 20 percent security surcharge, and it’s approaching $15. Matthews thinks that’s a bit much, but worth it.
“Understanding the crime rate in this area, concerning robbing and drug dealing and stuff like that, I’d say it is safer with the security,” says Matthews.
An Atlanta police spokesman says it is too soon to tell whether an officer’s presence is affecting crime stats. Waffle House says it has no plans to take the surcharge company-wide.
That gives the Underground location the distinction of being one of the most expensive Waffle House’s in the nation, if not the safest.