Where chef Michael Donoho grew up in Alaska, only 78 people lived in the surrounding 600 square miles. Since products were scarce, he learned to get creative to avoid waste.
“We’d load pancakes with berries, nuts, sauteed clams, ground beef, pork, or bacon,” he says.
This idea would reappear throughout his culinary career, starting at the Nikko Hotel in Beverly Hills. Working under Master Chef Russell Scott, Donoho began infusing nori, sesame, and wasabi into leftover waffle batter to create Japanese-inspired dishes—like broken nori waffle with fried prawns. Scott loved the idea and encouraged Donoho to keep it going.
After continuing the idea in various forms at other restaurants, in 2014, he decided it was time to make it his primary focus. With Partner and Chief Operating Officer David Isbell, he opened the first Waffle Experience near Sacramento. After handing out 12,000 waffle samples at the California state fair, they were set.
People lined up for Donoho’s take on sweet and savory waffles. There are traditional dessert waffles with bananas and Nutella, but there are also waffle sandwiches, waffle burgers, and waffle salads, made with a savory herb dough, similar to focaccia.
“People think we’re unique enough to give it a try but not so outrageous that they’d avoid us,” Donoho says.
He has since franchised the business and is moving its headquarters to Atlanta. The first East Coast location opens in June 2021 at the Works on Chattahoochee Avenue. It’ll be a 2,200-square-foot, full-service restaurant with a 50-seat patio.
Everything is made fresh, using local ingredients whenever possible. Salads come with waffle breadsticks, waffle croutons, or on an olive-infused waffle. The Babe Colossal Burger incorporates bacon crumbles in the waffle’s dough. The Pig Latin carnitas’ waffle is infused with jalapenos. The avocado “toast” is made with feta.
A first for the Waffle Experience, the Atlanta location will serve dinner, in addition to breakfast and lunch. The menu may include gumbo, ribs, oysters, and barbecue brisket—all incorporating a yeast waffle. Donoho envisions an airline breast, thigh, and leg, stacked high with carrots, thyme, and lemon jus, atop an herb waffle with apple compote stuffed inside.
“Back in the day, they’d put a piece of toast underneath a rare steak to keep the plate from looking too messy,” he says. “We’ll do that with a lardon- and blue cheese-stuffed herb waffle, under a seared filet, green fried tomato, peach demi-glace, and charred peaches.”
In addition to fair trade coffee, mimosas, and Bloody Marys, the Atlanta location of the Waffle Experience will serve beer, wine, and cocktails. Approximately half of the beer list will be from Scofflaw, since they have a brewery is onsite. The rest will be local to Georgia. Cocktails such as a tequila sunrise, rum runners, and boozy iced teas will be made with wine-based spirits.
Donoho says the restaurant will have a “farm industrial look” with brick, raw ceilings, reclaimed wood, and galvanized metal. “We want it to be comfortable, warm, and inviting—not too pretentious,” he says.
There’s an open kitchen and a glass wall that allows customers to watch production, too.