Joe Rogers Sr., the restaurateur who founded 24-hour diner chain Waffle House with his partner Tom Forkner, died on Friday. He was 97. As a young man, Rogers worked as a short-order cook and manager at the now-defunct Toddle House chain. He opened the first Waffle House with his neighbor Forkner in Avondale Estates, Georgia, in 1955. Forkner once explained how he and Rogers started the chain: “He said, ’You build a restaurant and I’ll show you how to run it.’” Rogers and Forkner decided to call it Waffle House because waffles were the most profitable items on the menu.
The duo expanded slowly, opening just a few more locations during the restaurant’s first decade in business. But growth accelerated in the ’70s and ’80s and now the chain has more than 1,900 outposts, most of which are located in the South. Even though he was the co-founder, Rogers liked to hop behind the counter from time to time. In 2004, the restaurateur told the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I’m not an executive, I’m a waffle cook.” Rogers pulled himself out of day-to-day operations of the chain decades ago, but he was still active at the company’s headquarters into his mid-80s.
With an all-day menu of inexpensive American comfort food, prepared to order, Waffle House developed a loyal fan base over the years — several high-minded chefs and food writers continue to sing its praises. John T. Edge once summed up the chain’s appeal: “Waffle House is a company that manages to be a national presence that still generates local pride, and that’s tough to do. Boysenberry syrup from IHOP is not in our vernacular.” Late at night, Waffle House is often a hotbed for bizarre criminal activity.
The chain also developed a reputation as a magnet for lawsuits. In the early 2000s, several African-American customers filed discrimination suits against the chain, alleging that they were served inferior food and received inadequate service compared to white customers at various locations. At the time, Rogers told the press: “We serve all races... We’re just a target. We’re not guilty and never have been.” Some of these cases were later settled by the chain.
Waffle House is a privately held company, and Rogers’s son, Joe Rogers Jr., is now the chairman. Rogers is survived by Forkner, who is currently 99. In a statement, Joe Jr. notes: “My father genuinely loved every customer who walked into a Waffle House, and customers immediately understood that... The customer always came first for him, and he made sure the customer came first for everyone who worked with him.”