The Self-Made Man: Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers, Sr.
Any TSB readers south of the Mason-Dixon have passed by Waffle Houses plenty of times on the highway, and I bet most of you have eaten in one at least once. Lord knows I have; I grew up in North Carolina, where it seems like there’s a Waffle House every fifty feet. Yes, whether you’re trying to avoid a hangover at two in the morning, or trying to break up with someone and there’s no Denny’s around, Waffle House should be a familiar institution to readers in the South, or rural parts of the Mid-Atlantic.
Waffle House was also the product of entrepreneurs, specifically Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers, Sr., who opened the first location of what would become a vital franchise in 1955. As you may have guessed, they are this week’s Self Made Men.
Joe Rogers Sr. was born in Tennessee, but got into the restaurant business in New Haven, CT, working as a short-order cook at the Toddle House. He worked his way up to regional manager and was transferred to Atlanta, where he met Tom Forkner, who was working as a realtor at the time.
Forkner was the fifth of seven children and a WWII veteran who took over his father’s real estate firm after the war, working in Avondale Estates, Georgia, where Rogers was buying a house. Their partnership began when they first met, which is such adorable timing that it could have been the start of a romantic comedy.
Theirs was a platonic, all-business relationship, however. Rogers was keen to open a sit-down dining version of McDonalds, whose assembly-line speed was still a novelty in the 1950s, that was open 24 hours. Forkner was hesitant about the idea at first, but Rogers’ confidence won him over; “You build a restaurant,” Forkner recalls Rogers telling him, “and I’ll show you how to run it.”
Forkner secured the location and found a builder, and also suggested naming the restaurant Waffle House, since waffles were the most profitable (and expensive) item on their menu, and also because waffles guaranteed a dine-in experience. Anyone who has ever tried to eat waffles in a car will know exactly what I mean.
There were originally no plans to expand Waffle House beyond its original location, but the restaurant did so well that they had to, and by 1960 they were offering franchises. The combination of their core concept (short-order, sit-down service at literally any hour of the day), Rogers’ dynamism and unshakable confidence, and Forkner’s patient, consistent work ethic is ultimately what made them successful with what GTA Alumni calls “a cult following that runs from cops and truck drivers to barflies and over-caffeinated college students.”
And like any cult following worth that description, people have written songs about Waffle House. I’ll leave you with this one by Colt Ford.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.