Waffle House: Recipe for Southern success is history

The little restaurant that started the big chain has become a museum near Atlanta

There are no waffles at the original Waffle House --- at least none you can eat.

When Unit 1 reopens this week near Avondale Estates, the only food on hand will be fake. The little restaurant that started the big chain has become a museum, a faithful re-creation of the morning when hash browns first hit the griddle on Labor Day 1955.


Hours: Museum is only open by appointment. Tours can be scheduled for Wednesdays or Thursdays between 10am and 2pm. Call 770-326-7086 at least one week in advance. Waffle House museum web site.

The museum’s story

The 13-stool diner and a next-door storefront have been restored with vintage equipment, displays of old uniforms, exhibits of memorabilia and place settings with plastic eggs and shellacked waffles. The jukebox is stocked with oldies and a selection of homespun Waffle House songs, one of which, "Waffle House Family --- Part One, " talks about the company's humble beginnings:

Long ago, Tom and Joe

Planted little yellow seeds

And watched 'em grow.

Credit: Frank Niemeir

Credit: Frank Niemeir

One day last week, a van pulled up in front of the restaurant on East College Avenue near the Avondale MARTA station, and two elderly men climbed out a bit slowly and stiffly. It was the little yellow seed-planters themselves --- Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers Sr. --- stopping by to check on their baby.

Rogers --- "call me Joe" --- is 88 and almost as bald as an uncracked egg. He grinned as he took in the modest structure that spawned more than 1,550 Waffle Houses in 25 states.

"This was the cheapest building we could build, " he said. "We just put a shoebox around our equipment. Cost us $14,000. We didn't want it to look expensive because we wanted it to look like you could come right in and be comfortable."

Forkner --- "Tom" --- is 90 and still has some wavy white hair on top. He walked inside the museum half of the building and paused in front of an enlarged photo showing him pouring coffee for his partner.

Rogers couldn't resist a jab. "I think that's the only time I've ever saw him pour coffee."

'We need a restaurant'  

Unlike the museum dedication on Wednesday, when there will be speeches and a ceremony, there was no hoopla when the first Waffle House opened in 1955. That made planning the exhibits a challenge.

Credit: Jessica McGowan

Credit: Jessica McGowan

"They didn't save much of anything, " said Waffle House communications director Pat Warner. "When we had our 50th anniversary, I was like: 'Didn't you take any pictures? Didn't you have a ribbon-cutting? Work with me here.' "

It just didn't seem like that big a deal at the time. The two founders figured they'd open a few restaurants and then go fishing.

Rogers had come from Tennessee, where he was a regional manager for Toddle House, a chain of diners based in Memphis. When the company moved him to Atlanta in 1949, he bought a house from Forkner, a real estate man whose father had helped develop Avondale Estates. They lived two doors apart and became close friends.

"What started all this is that I tried to get Joe to build a Toddle House in Avondale, " Forkner recalled. "He said Avondale wasn't right for Toddle House, and I said, 'Well, we still need a restaurant.' And he said, 'You build it and I'll show you how to run it.' "

Within a week, Forkner had found a location on College Avenue --- U.S. 278 --- the main route east out of Atlanta before I-20. The new partners had a house moved and erected their cheap building where it had stood.

David Skinner, a banker who later helped finance the company's expansion, was there when the first Waffle House opened. He had stopped by this morning to see his friends and their shrine.

"People were just so anxious to get a restaurant, " he said. "Once it opened, there was seldom an empty stool."

Rogers laughed and quoted the opening day's take: $142. "Maybe we weren't charging enough."

» RELATED: Why Waffle House is the best restaurant in Atlanta

Creative borrowing

Restaurant companies these days like to talk about dining concepts. If the waffle fathers had one, they wouldn't admit it.

"We didn't have an idea, really, " Rogers said. "I just copied everything I'd been doing for years at Toddle House. I even brought the recipes with me. I couldn't see fooling with something that was successful."

Fair enough. But why waffles?

Rogers again: "That was the year McDonald's and all the hamburger chains started doing takeout. We wanted to do sit-down, and we knew you couldn't take out a waffle or it'd become flimsy."

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

What about those signs? The first Waffle House sign used those familiar school bus colors --- black on yellow --- but the reproduction in front of Unit 1 looks different from the Scrabble board design that has become such a feature of the Southern roadscape. For one thing, it has an arrow.

Another case of creative borrowing, Rogers explained. "All we did was turn the old Holiday Inn sign upside down. Their arrow went over the top. Ours went under the bottom."

"We had one sign that was a flop, " Forkner chimed in. "It looked like syrup was dripping over the letters. Kind of kerflooey."

Rogers ambled over to the window. "This one's kind of like that." He squinted. "Yeah, it's drippin'."

Mayo and Aunt Maggie

Credit: Frank Niemeir

Credit: Frank Niemeir

After a while, the two wandered next door for a closer look at the restaurant itself. Unit 1 remained open until 1973, when the company sold it to a manager who ran it as an independent grill. For most of the past 20 years, it was a Chinese restaurant operated by an immigrant couple.

"I'd stop by every now and then and take a look, " Rogers said, taking a seat on one of the stools.

On the counter was a stack of replica menus with 1955 prices: pecan waffle (50 cents), cheese omelet (65 cents), chopped sirloin ($1). Against the wall was a cardboard stand-up of Waffle House servers, circa 1960, with the faces cut out so visitors can pose for pictures.

Forkner headed to the back of the restaurant and peeked into the 6-by-8-foot room he once used as an office. It had just enough room for a desk, a box and an orange crate.

"They'd call me at all hours, " he said. "They called one night: 'Tom, we need some help. The cook ran off with the waitress and I'm the only man in here.' "

Rogers stepped into the commissary at the rear of the eatery, where sacks of potatoes, Dixie Crystals sugar and White Lily flour were slumped on the floor.

"We made everything ourselves in the beginning, even mayonnaise, " he said. "Aunt Maggie ran our commissary. She always had that cigarette hanging out of her mouth."

Another early employee at the first Waffle House was Rogers' son, Joe Rogers Jr., who started out washing dishes as a teenager in this back room. He eventually became CEO and presided over the company's great period of expansion from a new headquarters in Norcross, where the founders have considerably larger offices.

From No. 1 to 1,000 

It was lunchtime, and the little yellow seed-planters were getting hungry. So they climbed back into the van and rode a few hundred yards up the road to Unit 1,000, a newer, roomier Waffle House that replaced the original after it closed. It may lack the retro charm of Unit 1, but it has one distinct advantage: real, edible waffles.

Forkner and Rogers --- pardon: Tom and Joe --- settled into a back booth like they had done it a few thousand times. They didn't need a menu.


Hours: Museum is only open by appointment. Tours can be scheduled for Wednesdays or Thursdays between 10am and 2pm. Call 770-326-7086 at least one week in advance.


Credit: Frank Niemeir

Credit: Frank Niemeir

  • When Truett Cathy introduced Chick-fil-A sandwiches in the early 1960s, Waffle House was one of his first outlets. The menu item was discontinued because it was too popular. "We weren't selling anything else, " Tom Forkner says.
  • Waffle Houses did not take credit cards until a couple of years ago. "The young ones did that, not us, " says Joe Rogers Sr., who prefers cash and titled his memoir "Who's Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer?"
  • Most Waffle Houses are in the South --- there are more than 200 in metro Atlanta alone --- but the chain has been spreading. Waffle Houses now can be found as far west as Arizona and as far north as Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  • The Waffle House Web site (www.wafflehouse.com) gives a heap of golly-gee stats. Did you know that every year Waffle House serves enough grits to fill 86 semi-trucks? Enough eggs to make a 28-ton omelet? Enough bacon to stretch end-to-end from Atlanta to Los Angeles seven times?
  • Those Waffle House songs in the jukeboxes? They started in 1984 when Mary Welch Rogers, a singer who happens to be married to the CEO, started recording them. Among the titles: "Waffle Doo-Wop, " "Life Is Like a Cup of Coffee, " "Why Would You Eat Your Grits Anyplace Else?"

--- Jim Auchmutey