Black Business Spotlight: What the Waffle finds success in King-Lincoln

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch

Editor's Note: As part of its commitment to cover the intersection of race and business, The Dispatch will feature one Black-owned business a week throughout February. That's in addition to continued examination of the barriers faced by Black business owners.

Gayle Troy is the owner of What the Waffle in the King-Lincoln neighborhood.

Gayle Troy paid for her daughter’s college tuition with sweet potato muffins.

For years, Troy and her husband, Eric, would get up early in the morning and drop off her homemade treats at coffeehouses before going to their jobs.

Now, customers are coming to her.

Troy’s restaurant, What the Waffle, opened a brick-and-mortar operation on Long Street in the King-Lincoln neighborhood in the summer of 2020. Even amid the pandemic, customers flocked to the establishment to get their fill of Troy’s muffins, along with the featured menu item: buttermilk Belgian waffles.

“They were lined up over the (Long Street) bridge,” recalled Troy, 61, of Gahanna. “And it was raining. Not only was it a leap of faith, it was also a test market. And apparently, it works.”

Troy attributes the restaurant’s success to its carryout-only format, given many people are opting to eat meals at home. The space is just big enough to house the kitchen and a waiting area decorated with paintings of Black figures such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr., created by artist Adriane McMillon.

Patrons also can sign their names on a colorful chalkboard designed by McMillon.

Troy has built a loyal following from her original location in the Columbus Food Hub in Olde Towne East, where she served breakfast and brunch from 2016 to 2017. The incubator also housed restaurants including Hot Chicken Takeover, Way Down Yonder and J Hot Fish, but the building was sold to make room for a mixed-use project.

From 2017 to 2020, Troy worked hard to locate and prepare a new space.

“As entrepreneurs, we just have to keep moving,” she said. The customers "remained consistent. That just speaks to the customer service and the quality of the food.”

Customers can order their waffles plain or spice them up with fruit, Nutella and more. There’s even a bacon jalapeno waffle on the menu.

“Everyone just knows the traditional waffle, not with things infused into them like herbs or cheddar cheese,” Troy said. “You put blueberries and chocolate chips in pancakes. Why can't you do that with waffles? We just started doing so many different types of ingredients within the batter.”

The most adventurous items are the breakfast and brunch sandwiches. The most popular option is The Waddy, which includes deep-friend chicken tenders and warm peach cobbler sauce.

Other selections include shrimp and grits, steak and eggs and a decadent eggs benedict dish that includes a waffle, salmon and caviar. The lunch menu also features waffle sandwiches.

Waffles topped with fruit at What the Waffle

Troy’s creativity caught the eye of The Food Network, which included What the Waffle on its 2018 “50 States of Waffles” list.

The Waddy is named for John Waddy Jr., an African American attorney who does real estate development under the name Cap-View Commons with partners John Slupski and Fred Veryser. They are the owners and developers of the What the Waffle property.

“It’s a wonderful sandwich, but for a man my age, I have to be judicious about eating that,” laughed Waddy, 66, whose law firm has its offices near the restaurant.

Waddy and his partners originally planned to open a pizza place before Troy inquired about the space. They welcome more restaurants and are hoping for a grocery store as King-Lincoln needs more access to food, Waddy said.

What the Waffle's breakfast sandwiches

Also a resident of the neighborhood, Waddy has earned the nickname “the mayor of Long Street” because of his contributions to the neighborhood. Cap-View also developed a barbershop, boutique and apartments on Long Street, and his goal has been to keep longtime residents, welcome newcomers and maintain the integrity of the area.

“The neighborhood right now is experiencing a proliferation of people coming in redoing properties and selling them for a great deal of money and they're gone,” he said. “You have to come in and want to be part of the unity and not just to make money. The fact that (What the Waffle) is so personable, so kind and so welcoming is an indication of how you succeed, and that is to become part of the community.”

What the Waffle is succeeding in the King-Lincoln neighborhood, once a hub of thriving Black-owned businesses.

King-Lincoln, also known as Bronzeville, once was a hub of Black-owned businesses, and Troy said she is honored to be part of that legacy.

“To be a Black female-owned business on Long Street, it’s humbling,” she said.

Originally from North Carolina, Troy developed an early love for food with southern flair. At 6 years old, she made her first cookbook with construction paper and crayons, and included recipes like, “How to fry chicken.”

As an adult, she forged a career path in the corporate world, working for Columbus State Community College and Columbus City Schools. She also served as CEO of Ohio Business Week, a business and entrepreneurship program for high school students.

While working full-time, she had a catering business on the side and attended culinary school at Columbus State. She spoke to other women entrepreneurs about the barriers they faced in business—barriers she herself encountered when she opened What the Waffle.

“I started reliving everything that they had shared with me in terms of the lack of support and the lack of funding,” she said. “I saved my money and tapped into my 401(k) just to eliminate some of that stress. I just don't understand why, as women, we're questioned on what we are doing in developing a business and supporting the community, where others aren't.”

What the Waffle owner Gayle Troy prepares an order of waffles in the kitchen.

Troy’s husband, Eric, said he witnessed the sexism his wife experienced when they dealt with contractors.

“They would always ask me and I was like, ‘You need to talk to the owner, my wife,’ ” he said. “She knew exactly what she wanted by the measurements. I had no clue.”

Eric, who also helps out at the restaurant, said he was proud of the way his wife has persevered.

“She is a go-getter,” he said. “Her say-to-do ratio is 100%. Also, when young girls come in and see her as the owner, that’s my biggest joy.”

Eric Troy helps out at What the Waffle, but he's quick to point out that the restaurant is owned by his wife, Gayle Troy.

Troy also uses the restaurant to help young women aging out of the foster care system. She hires them and provides them with other resources.

Employee Bre Brown, 21, of the South Side, has benefitted from Troy’s efforts.

“I feel like she actually helped me,” said Brown, who is training to manage the restaurant. “When I was in foster care, I didn’t really care. Now, I’m bettering myself.”

Brown, who hopes to own her own businesses in the future, said she enjoys coming to work with the husband-and-wife team. 

“They’re both funny,” she said. “And if you ever met their daughter, Ray, they’re comedians. They make me feel a part of their family.”

What the Waffle owner Gayle Troy, left, works in the kitchen with Bre Brown, who has benefitted from Troy's efforts to give back to young women aging out of the foster care system.

Ray Troy is making good use of her college degree from Clark Atlanta University, paid for in pastries. She has joined the family business, and has plans to open a second What the Waffle location in Atlanta.

“(My mother) definitely made it a point to let me know, ‘I'm doing it for you, for my future grandkids,’ so that there is that generational wealth, and we wouldn't necessarily have to have the same type of struggle,” said Ray, 34, of Gahanna. “What the Waffle will be a foundation. No matter what, even if my kids decided not to go into it, they still have that to fall back on.”

ethompson@dispatch.com

@miss_ethompson