How Waffle House became a cultural icon

Two friends, fifty years, and one basic menu built an Avondale Estates diner into an institution

How Waffle House became a cultural iconThis article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.

If you were to order hashbrowns with grilled onions for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) and hear your server tell the kitchen to “smother ’em,” you would almost certainly be at Waffle House. And even if you placed this order on Interstate 80 in Hubbard, Ohio, or on Highway 34 in Loveland, Colorado, or overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Key West, or at some lonely exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or at any of the other 1,543 Waffle Houses in twenty-five states, you would be channeling a uniquely enduring and iconic piece of Atlanta.

Waffle House is as Atlanta as Coca-Cola, CNN, or Delta, only more demure. You won’t turn on your television to see the king of all-night diners assaulting you with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, and you won’t get a jingle stuck in your head, because there isn’t one. Waffle House never needed one. Waffle by waffle, egg by egg, the chain has quietly grown to a consistent place in the nation’s top ten family-owned chains, in the company of Denny’s, Shoney’s, and Cracker Barrel.

Avondale Estates, the English-inspired planned city founded in 1924 just east of Decatur, is where it all started. A short-order cook named Joe Rogers Sr. bought a home on Stratford Road from a real estate man named Tom Forkner, a former lawyer who also lived on Stratford and whose father supervised the construction of Avondale Estates. Both in their late thirties, Joe Sr. and Tom decided to partner in the restaurant business. Tom found a location on East College Avenue, a main thoroughfare between Atlanta and eastern Georgia. They opted for waffles as opposed to a white-tablecloth, prime-rib kind of place because waffles felt warmer, friendlier, more family-like, and they cost less to make. Waffle House opened Labor Day weekend, 1955. Years later, when I-20 came in and a bunch of roads got moved, Joe Sr. and Tom had to close “number one.” They sold the building—it became a Chinese restaurant and later a second-hand tire store. But not long ago, Waffle House bought the building back. As you read this, the original Waffle House, at 2719 East College Avenue, is being renovated as the Waffle House museum. (Editor’s Note: The Waffle House museum opened in 2010.) You will never be able to eat so much as a grit there, but the museum will open at certain times for corporate and community events, where visitors will be able to see more than a half-century’s worth of menus, uniforms, photos, and other memorabilia, much of which harks to certain older-timers’ fondest topic of conversation: the era when a cup of coffee set a fella back ten cents and a whole homemade pie cost a dollar.

From the urban strips like Buford Highway to interstate outposts, Waffle House beams right up there with the rest of commercialized America—with the Exxons and Burger Kings and KFCs—but with such a stripped-down unpretentiousness as to almost be invisible. In the sixties, a friend of Tom’s designed the logo of today: the bright yellow blocks with plain black letters, as simple as Scrabble tiles and as pop-culturally ingenious as the smiley face. Meant to convey affordability, cleanliness, and friendliness, the design improved upon the original logo of wavy black letters, which looked less like the intended effect of poured syrup than an ad for a haunted house. The familiar yellow flow draws the shift workers, cops, college kids, brunchers, vacationers, meemaws and papaws, musicians, truckers, and the alcoholically impaired. In the tipsy demographic alone, the chain probably makes a fortune. If Waffle House were to shut its doors, the nation would be awash in hungry drunks. Unless you’ve held at least one after-after-after party at Waffle House, you cannot, in the American South, be considered a legitimate drinker. IHOP doesn’t count. Neither does Denny’s. Or Waffle King, whatever that is.

Forget about the drunks, though. Let’s talk about money. Yours and theirs. You can still eat to the popping point on less than ten bucks. Today’s burgers go for $1.25 to $3.55 (for a double cheeseburger). A double order of hashbrowns: $1.65. A waffle the size of a hubcap: $2.55 (add pecans, 45 cents.) (Note: These prices reflect 2007.) the menu contains ninety-five base items, plus meal deals, plus beverages, plus endless possibilities for gluttonous combinations. Steak and eggs plus a waffle plus country ham plus cheese grits plus maybe just one little slice of Southern pecan pie, for instance. Greasy? Obviously. Deadly? Probably. But nobody’s got a gun to your head. Pick the grilled chicken salad if you want. Or have a wrap. Either way, the cash registers are smokin’. They take credit cards now, too. Waffle House declines to talk about how much money they make—it’s a private company. But industry analysts have put annual sales at $325 million.

Listen to how they do it. “All our food is cooked up front and right in sight,” Tom Forkner said the other day. “There’s no class distinction at Waffle House,” added Joe Rogers Sr. “At Waffle House, everybody talks to everybody. We want it to be your home away from home.”

Yes, that’s right. The founders are still alive, very much so—nearly ninety now but altogether kicking. Joe Sr. is tall and cracks jokes and says he never worries about a daggone thing. (“Today is the tomorrow you were worried about yesterday!”) Tom kind of looks like a wiry Bill Clinton; he plays the straight man, waiting for his opening. They’ve been friends all these years and are still married to their first wives. Joe Sr. refers to his, Ruth, as “the queen mother.” The families were neighbors for decades in Avondale Estates until Joe Sr. and the queen mother moved to the Country Club of the South (“where all the e-lites live,” Tom says) and Tom moved to the Chattahoochee. They have been Waffle House men since Studebaker days, first on East College and now at corporate headquarters on Financial Drive in Norcross, where the language of the $537 billion restaurant industry necessitates the use of words such as “franchise” and “same-store sales.” Joe Sr. and Tom work out of adjoining offices plastered with photographs and trophies and bumper sticker-sized training mantras such as “A company is known by the people it keeps” and “Attitude is contagious—is yours worth catching?” Between waffles, Joe Sr. found time to publish an autobiography—Who’s Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer?—and Tom got so handy with a nine-iron they put him in the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.

Employees learn how to flip the burgers and scatter the hashbrowns, but more than anything else, Waffle Housers learn about customer service. This starts with a greeting, and not the slightly predatory kind you get at a place like Blockbuster, where they practically run you down just to say hello. The ideal Waffle House greeting is organic, even if the eggs aren’t. Managers and executives start out on the floor—sweeping it, working it—on the theory that if you’ve never cooked and served the food you can’t possibly run a whole restaurant, much less a region. Managers train for six to eight weeks in the field and attend Waffle House University in Norcross, where for a week they learn about operations and soft skills such as coaching, including a three-hour personality-profiling class on how to bring out the best in people. As they like to say at Waffle House: It’s all about the relationships.

How does a Waffle House get born? How do they decide where to put it? Well, it’s got a little to do with the elaborate studies and talk of paradigm shifts. “That’s a bunch of bull,” Joe Sr. said. “Kemmons Wilson, who started Holiday Inn, said all these computers and everything—all he does is go out and look.”

“Several years ago, one of our competitors looked for locations,” Tom said. “He told me if they found a location they liked, they looked around, and if they didn’t see a Waffle House, they didn’t go there.” According to the most recent company figures, 753 Waffle Houses are company owned and 790 are franchises. (Note: These numbers reflect 2007.)

“We have good locations,” Joe Sr. said. “We look clean, and we don’t look expensive. So when they come in and try us out, if we’re kind to them, we’ve got it made.”

Other chains remake themselves—modernize. Waffle House recently added biscuits to the menu, and butterscotch waffles, and deli turkey. And however improbable, they just made a YouTube video. Otherwise, not much has changed, not even the floor plan, which Joe Sr. and Tom designed for minimum steps between food preparation and delivery and for maximum contact with customers. In every Waffle House, the counter faces the open grill and booths line the windows. If you stripped all the coloring and lettering off a Waffle House, you would still know it’s a Waffle House, the way a Coca-Col a bottle could never be anything but a Coke. “We’re just a shoebox,” Joe Sr. said. “These boys who’ve come in the past few years and built these Taj Mahals and stuff—they’re not around anymore. If you could line up the restaurants we’ve seen come and go, that’s a long list. Waffle House is such an institution, it’s been serenaded (Hootie and the Blowfish), silver-screened (Tin Cup), and celebritized (Reese Witherspoon, Beyoncé Knowles, Pete Sampras, Billy Bob Thorton). Local chef Julia Williams, and ex-Waffle House cook, gave her culinary alma mater a little TV cred during her recent contestantship on the Hell’s Kitchen reality show.

Mark Miklos, Waffle House’s director of training and development, gets paid to say nice things about the company because he works there, but he puts it this way: “Think about the New York Yankees—they’ve worn the pinstripes forever. They’ve never changed their logo. A team like the Padres or the Diamondbacks—every season they’re wearing something different. They’re struggling to find an identity. There are restaurant companies going though the same metamorphosis. They’re chasing the next chic fad because they don’t have an identity. We haven’t had to chase an idenity because we’re confident in who we are, and it works for us.”

Picture perfect!

A photo posted by Waffle House Official (@wafflehouseofficial) on

Ultimately Waffle House might wind up in all fifty states, but for now most of its locations are in the South, and more than 200 of those are in metropolitan Atlanta. There’s a reason for that. “People stay up all night in the South,” Joe Sr. said. “They go to bed early in the North on account of the weather. I’ve worked in Cleveland, I’ve worked in Buffalo. The snow comes in, the buses stop running, and you don’t do any business. You take Buffalo, New York—sometimes at night you don’t see anything moving, the snow gets so deep and the weather so bad. You got employees not making any tips and standing around doing nothing. One night I realized all we could do was get the rags out and clean.”

“There’ll always be more Waffle Houses in the greater Atlanta area than anywhere else,” Tom said. “It’s like a web that builds out.”

“The night business determines whether we have sales enough to be profitable,” Joe Sr. added.

“One supreme test of whether it’s a good location—take a real rainy, blistery Tuesday or Wednesday night at two o’clock in the morning, park your automobile there and see how many cars pass,” Tom said. “If you don’t have many cars, you don’t have a good spot.”

Search the internet and you won’t get very far without coming across an international outpouring of Waffle House love. On a rabidly visited website called the Waffle House Shrine, customers and employees rhapsodize about their WaHo experiences and memories. “Our tradition is second booth from the bathroom, coffee black, a glass of water, and a Texas Cheese Steak plate w/extra hashbrowns. So here is our dilemma: HOW do you make those Texas Cheese Steaks at home!?!” writes a Melissa. “We know that our [family’s] obsession had gone overboard when our oldest daughter asked if she could be a Waffle House waitress for Halloween,” writes Michele, of Dallas, Georgia. “I have the misfortune of living in Connecticut. There isn’t a WH within 500 miles,” writes Fred. Mike of Miami writes, “Just ate with the wife and kids at Waffle House just outside Atlanta, I think store #638. I loved the chef’s visor hat which was red and had Waffle House spelled out and Grill Master on the brim. If asked her if I could buy a hat like that, she said no way you have to earn this hat after eighteen years of working . . . About two minutes later another waitress came out and gave me her hat. I realized it was used and had waffle batter on the brim, and on the inside headband was crusty old hair gel. I was too proud to give it back, so I have washed it and now wear it to our yacht club.” Tiny, a trucker from Philly, writes, “If I ever won the lottery I’d buy a franchise so I could get that great coffee and see some fine looking women.” A fellow named Chaz says, “I was at Waffle House the other day and I SWEAR TO GOD someone was getting married there.” Lee writes, “Surely there are yellow and black neon signs flashing WAFFLE HOUSE in heaven.”

Eggs lead the category of most-served menu items. Since 1955, Waffle House has dished out more than 1.5 billion of them—more than hashbrowns, more than waffles. “When I got in this business, food was number one—you got all your complaints about your egg not being cooked right,” Joe Sr. said. “All the complaints now are on service. So we’re in the service business more than we’re in the food business. We kill ‘em with kindness and survive ‘em with a little good food.” He leaned in like he was about to confide the combination to a vault. “Why, I’m such a good service man, I can give you a hamburger without any meat in it and you wouldn’t know it until you get down the street.”

Tom said, “I don’t believe I’d bet on that.”

“You never lose a customer who’s satisfied.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.