September 5, 1955|
Avondale Estates, Georgia, U.S.
Joe Rogers Sr.|
Number of locations
|Walter G. Ehmer (President & CEO)|
Waffle House, Inc. is an American restaurant chain with 2,100 locations in 25 states in the United States. Most of the locations are in the South, where the chain is a regional cultural icon. Waffle House is headquartered in an unincorporated part of Gwinnett County, Georgia, near Norcross.
The first Waffle House opened on Labor Day weekend in 1955 at 2719 East College Avenue in Avondale Estates, Georgia. That restaurant was conceived and founded by Joe Rogers Sr. (1919–2017) and Tom Forkner (1918–2017). Rogers started in the restaurant business as a short-order cook in 1947 at the Toddle House in New Haven, Connecticut. By 1949, he became a regional manager with the now-defunct Memphis-based Toddle House chain, then he moved to Atlanta. He met Tom Forkner while buying a house from him in Avondale Estates.
Rogers's concept was to combine the speed of fast food with table service with around-the-clock availability. He told Forkner, "...You build a restaurant, and I’ll show you how to run it," recalls Tom Forkner.
Forkner suggested naming the restaurant Waffle House, as waffles were the most profitable item on the 16-item menu. The fragile nature of waffles also made the point that it was a dine-in, not a carry-out, restaurant, but it confused patrons as to meal availability other than breakfast.
Rogers continued to work with Toddle House, and to avoid conflict of interest, sold his interest to Forkner in 1956. In 1960, when Rogers asked to buy into Toddle House, and they refused, he moved back to Atlanta and rejoined Waffle House, now a chain of three restaurants, to run restaurant operations. Shortly after Joe returned full-time, Tom followed suit and left Ben S. Forkner Realty.
After opening a fourth restaurant in 1960, the company began franchising its restaurants and slowly grew to 27 stores by the late 1960s, before growth accelerated. The company is privately held and does not disclose annual sales figures, but says they serve 2% of the eggs used in the nation's food-service industry. The founders limit their involvement in management, and as of 2013, Joe Rogers Jr. was CEO and retired late 2013, and Bert Thornton is President.
Although the Waffle House chain is concentrated in the Southeast, it has reached as far to the north as Austinburg, Ohio, near Ashtabula, as far to the west as Goodyear, Arizona, in the suburbs of Phoenix, as far to the south as Key Largo, Florida, and as far to the east as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
In 2007, Waffle House repurchased the original restaurant, which was sold by the chain in the early 1970s and was most recently a Chinese restaurant. The company restored it using original blueprints for use as a private company museum. The museum is used primarily for internal corporate events and tours and is occasionally open to the public.
In 2008, one of the biggest Waffle House franchises in the southeast, North Lake Foods, was bought out by Waffle House, Inc. North Lake Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed some stores. Waffle House, Inc. plans to rehabilitate the franchise. In early 2009, East Coast Waffles bought North Lake Foods to become a new franchise.
The chain's restaurants almost always have jukeboxes, which have traditionally played 45-rpm singles and, in some cases, CDs. Often, the entire first column of selections and much of the second column would have songs about Waffle House and its food. Many of the songs are written or sung by people with connections to the chain, such as Mary Welch Rogers. The songs are on ordinary discs, which are produced for Waffle House and are not commercially sold, but the chain has made a CD of some of the songs available for sale. In 2012-13, most (if not all) of the locations have removed the 45-rpm/CD jukeboxes in favor of digital touchscreen jukeboxes, which, at Waffle House restaurants, still feature all of the original Waffle House songs.
The servers use a proprietary version of diner lingo to call in orders, and the menu suggests some use of the same lingo when placing orders for hash brown potatoes: "scattered" (spread on the grill), "smothered" (with onions), "covered" (with cheese), "chunked" (with diced ham), "diced" (with diced tomatoes), "peppered" (with jalapeño peppers), "capped" (with mushrooms), "topped" (with chili), and "all the way" (with all available toppings). The option of "country" was added for hash browns with sausage gravy on them. Additionally, the company has a symbolic code by which grill operators are told the specific orders that go on each customer's plate; a 2017 ESPN.com story gave the following overview of this code:
Using accoutrements such as jelly packets, mayonnaise packets, pickles, cheese and hash brown pieces, grill operators are told what orders go on which plates. A jelly packet at the bottom of the plate signifies scrambled eggs. Raisin toast is signified by a packet of apple butter. A mustard packet facing up means a pork chop. Face-down means country ham. A pat of butter is a T-bone, and its place on the plate determines how the steak cooked, from well done at the top to rare at the bottom.
The company claims to be the world's largest seller of several of its menu items—the namesake waffles, ham, pork chops, grits, and T-bone steaks. It also claims that it serves 2% of all eggs in the U.S.
Waffle & Steak
For years, Waffle House was known as "Waffle & Steak" in Indiana due to another chain of restaurants owning the rights to the Waffle House name in the state. Reportedly, the original Indiana Waffle House chain has started using the name "Sunshine Cafe". However, the d/b/a for "Sunshine Cafe" belongs to "Waffle House Greenwood Inc.", established in 1981. The oldest "Waffle House" entity listed with the Corporations office of the Indiana Secretary of State is "Waffle House of Bloomington, Indiana, Inc." established in 1967, and like Waffle House Greenwood, it is still an active corporation. The Bloomington operation, noted for being the city's second oldest restaurant, closed in 2013 and was demolished to make way for an apartment complex. (Many of the Waffle House corporations in Indiana have been dissolved.) "Waffle House Inc." of Norcross, Georgia registered with Indiana in 1974. In 2005, the Waffle & Steak restaurants all adopted the "Waffle House" moniker, bringing the entire chain under the iconic name.
In 2004, in response to a serious Salmonella problem in 2003 at a Chili's location in Vernon Hills, Illinois, and by four deaths in 1993 from E. coli in undercooked hamburger at a Jack in the Box, the television news magazine Dateline NBC investigated sanitation practices of popular American family restaurant chains, measuring the number of critical violations per inspection. The Waffle House averaged 1.6 critical violations per inspection. Waffle House's response to the study pointed out that they prepare all meals in an open kitchen, and consumers can readily observe their sanitation practices themselves.
Association with politics
Waffle House has a history of supporting conservative Republicans. In 2012 Waffle House donated $100,000 to American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by Karl Rove. Waffle House also donated $50,000 to Restore Our Future, a Super-PAC created to boost Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid. In their home state, Waffle House has supported many of Georgia's congressional Republicans. Waffle House Vice-President Don Balfour was the longest serving Republican in the Georgia senate.
As with other open-all-night eateries (including White Castle, Krystal, Denny's, and Krispy Kreme), Waffle House has developed into a cultural icon. Part of their fame (especially that of Waffle House) is that they are so prominent along Interstate highways in the South. Jim Ridley wrote in 1997:
The Waffle House is everywhere in the South. It has inspired country songs, comedy routines, loving editorials, a scene in the movie Tin Cup, and even web sites and Internet newsgroups that breathlessly post late-breaking developments. With more than 1200 locations in 20 states, as far north as Ohio and as far west as Arizona, Waffle House is cherished by thousands of diners. Regular customers speak of its employees, its customs, and its food with near reverence. Touring musicians have been known to eat five meals a week there. Yet the Waffle House is so pervasive, it is invisible. It does not advertise; it hides in plain sight.
Waffle House is called the "low-rent roadside cafe featuring waffles" in the 1996 romantic comedy movie Tin Cup. It is also shown in the 2006 film ATL, the 2018 film Love, Simon, and the movie Due Date, in which the main character selects that restaurant, despite being allergic to waffles. A Waffle House in Nashville was the setting for a routine by the stand-up comedian Bill Hicks. The aforementioned 2017 ESPN story stated, "there's no business that has a more symbiotic relationship with college football fans of every stripe than the Waffle House." Waffle House is particularly popular among football fans from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference, with locations in college towns attracting crowds before and after football games.
Waffle House is referenced to in popular music, as in the songs "The Bad Touch" by the Bloodhound Gang, "24 Hours" by TeeFlii and "Big Amount" by 2 Chainz, in the title of the Hootie & the Blowfish album Scattered, Smothered and Covered, and in "Welcome to Atlanta" by Jermaine Dupri.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Waffle House is one of the top four corporations, along with Walmart, The Home Depot, and Lowe's, for disaster response. Waffle House has an extensive disaster management plan with on-site and portable generators and positioned food and ice ahead of severe weather events such as a hurricane. This helps mitigate the effects of a storm on the power grid and the supply chains. The company prepares 'jump teams' of recovery staff and supplies, brought in from outside disaster-affected areas, so that local staff can focus on helping their own homes and families. The ability of a Waffle House to remain open after a severe storm, possibly with a limited menu, is used by FEMA as a measure of disaster recovery known as the Waffle House index.
Waffle Houses have been the site of several shooting incidents. On April 22, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee a partially-naked gunman armed with an AR-15 style rifle killed 4 people before he was disarmed by a patron and escaped. The shooter, 29 year old Travis Reinking, was captured after a day-long manhunt.
In 2018, there were two incidents at Waffle Houses where the employees called the police on unarmed African-American customers, who deployed force against them. One 22 year old wearing a tuxedo was choked by police officers, and another young woman was aggressively held down by police, revealing her breasts. This came at a time of heightened sensitivity over a number of incidents where police were called over customers of African-American background, at Starbucks and other locations in the United States.
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