Waffle House Co-Founder Joseph (Joe) Wilson Rogers, Sr., passed away at the age of 97 on Friday.
His loss is felt by his family and more than 40,000 Waffle House associates across the country.
A memorial service and celebration of life will be held Wednesday, March 8, at 1:30 pm at the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center, 800 Spring Street, NW, Atlanta, GA 30308.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Giving Kitchen, which provides assistance to Atlanta area restaurant workers (thegivingkitchen.org), or the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation (callawaygardens.com).
Rogers and neighbor Tom Forkner, now 99 years old, started the Waffle House brand with the opening of their first restaurant on Labor Day 1955 in Avondale Estates, near Decatur, GA..
They quickly developed a loyal customer base and began to build the business across Georgia and neighboring states.
“We’re not in the restaurant business,” Joe Rogers, Sr. would say. “We’re in the people business.”
The yellow Waffle House sign became a familiar landmark along streets and highways across the Southeast, signaling the restaurant would stay open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“My father genuinely loved every customer who walked into a Waffle House, and customers immediately understood that,” said Rogers’ son, Joe Rogers, Jr., Chairman of Waffle House, Inc. “The customer always came first for him, and he made sure the customer came first for everyone who worked with him.”
While Rogers was not actively running the restaurants in his later years, his legacy of customer service continued. Up until just a few years ago, Rogers still came into the Norcross, GA office to check in on the business and offer encouragement to the Waffle House associates.
“Joe and Tom never imagined their company would grow to the 1,900 restaurants we have today,” Joe Rogers, Jr. says. “They never envisioned the financial success shared by so many of their associates 61 years later.”
Born in Jackson, TN in 1919, Rogers was the son of the late Frank Hamilton and Ruth Elizabeth DuPoyster Rogers. He was preceded in death by his brother Frank Rogers.
Survivors include his beloved wife of 74 years, Ruth Jolley Rogers, daughters Dianne Tuggle (Bob) of Monument, CO, Deborah (Kari Vega) Rogers of Santa Rosa, CA, and sons Joe W. Rogers, Jr. (Fran) of Atlanta and Frank Rogers (Debra) of Fountain Hills, AZ. Also surviving are nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
Joe Rogers, Sr. was born the son of a railroad man who was laid off during the Great Depression. After his father’s layoff, Rogers went to work throwing newspapers and delivering laundry to contribute to his family’s income.
Joining the Army Air Corps during World War II, he learned how to fly and trained B-24 pilots, eventually earning the rank of captain. He married the former Ruth Jolley, daughter of a Methodist minister in Jackson, TN.
When the war ended, Rogers went to work for Frederick Smith in the Toddle House Corporation. Smith, the father of Fredrick Wallace Smith, founder of Federal Express, founded the Toddle House restaurant chain as well as the Dixie Greyhound Bus Line.
Rogers began his restaurant career at a Toddle House in New Haven, CT., where he learned the art of short-order cooking and honed his customer service skills.
“My daddy had taught me always to smile at people and always to make people happy to see me,” Rogers wrote in his autobiography, “Who’s Looking Out for The Poor Old Cash Customer?” Rogers continued, “I didn’t know any other way to approach a person, especially a customer.”
He was rapidly promoted to City Manager in Philadelphia then, less than a year later, to Southeast Division Manager in Atlanta.
When he moved to the Atlanta area, he bought a house in Avondale Estates next door to Forkner, a real estate professional.
The two men swiftly became friends, and that friendship grew into a 60-year business partnership bound only by a handshake.
Under Rogers’ and Forkner’s leadership, the Waffle House chain grew to 400 restaurants by the end of the 1970s. It was in the late 1970s that they stepped out of the day-to-day running of the business.
Most established businesses of today started as just an idea among a few people with no expectation of great size and success. Joe and Tom did not envision what Waffle House has become, but they stuck by their concept and their belief in shared ownership. Now more than 60 years later, the southern icon has become A Unique American Phenomenon® by serving GOOD FOOD FAST®.
As the Waffle House system celebrates more than 60 years of service, we look forward to making the next generation of customers and associates part of the family. At Waffle House® restaurants, success is measured by one thing–PEOPLE.
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