If you’ve ever looked closely at a Waffle House menu, you might notice a few interesting names — Bert’s Chili, Papa Joe’s Pork Chops, Alice’s Iced Tea. To a hungry customer, these names might seem arbitrary, but each one is an integral part of Waffle House history.
Bert’s Chili is named for Bert Thornton, who started working at Waffle House in 1971 and eventually became the vice president of the company.
“I’ve never done anything but work in the restaurants,” said Thornton, who started working at Waffle House in 1971 and has served as a dishwasher, busboy, grill operator and manager trainee.
When Thornton began working at Waffle House, the chili was not a point of pride.
“If you were dumb enough to order chili in a Waffle House in the late ’70s, we would have scooped it out of a can and heated it up for you,” he said.
In the early 1980s, Thornton ran the Waffle Houses west of the Mississippi River when then-President Joe Rogers Jr. tasked him to come up with a house chili recipe. Thornton lived in Dallas at the time, and created four recipes that were tested in Lewisville, Texas, Lancaster, Texas, Mesquite, Texas, and Lake Worth, Texas.
After a year, he settled on the Lake Worth recipe, but removed two of the original ingredients: bacon and Tabasco sauce.
“I couldn’t use Tabasco because it had to play well in all the markets, even the markets that don’t cater to spicy foods,” he said. The bacon was expensive but added little flavor.
Once the house chili was officially added to the menu, Thornton recalls that it was “a unilateral home run.” The version of chili that is served today is not the original. When the chili was first introduced, stores received the chili base in cases of six 1-gallon cartons. Restaurants would face such high demand that they didn’t have freezer space to store it.
Thornton spent a year perfecting a new version of the chili that started with a freeze-dried spice and onion mix that was easier to store.
“I was scared to death because (the chili) was so popular,” said Thornton. He initially feared that customers wouldn’t like the new recipe, but when it was introduced, sales increased 22%. Now, Waffle House serves 11 million bowls of chili a year.
“It turned into kind of a cult following,” he said. “We didn’t have to order much Heinz chili when we served it out of a can.”
Thornton joked that Rogers claimed to name the chili after him for a “job well done,” but what he really wanted was for Thornton to feel obligated to supervise the chili with his name on it. It seems to have worked: Thornton frequents Waffle House to this day and often still serves up bowls of his famous chili.
Another Waffle House classic, Alice’s Iced Tea, is named after Alice Johnson, who ran multiple departments during her restaurant career of more than 40 years.
“She told Joe that we needed to up the quality of the iced tea, and he said to ‘Go do it,’” Thornton said.
Johnson started with Royal Cup’s China Black Tea and combined it with other teas to create the blend used today. She also perfected the ratio of sugar to ensure a consistent taste in every cup.
After renaming the chili and tea, Rogers continued to personalize some of the items on the menu.
Lib’s Patty Melt is named after the late baseball player Charles Lilburn “Lib” Julian of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Julian joined Waffle House in 1970 as director of franchise development, and rose to senior executive vice president of operations before retiring in 1996.
Finally, Rogers named Papa Joe’s Pork Chops after Joe Rogers Sr., one of the original founders of the restaurant chain — and his father.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution