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Waffle Housing

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DSCF0386.JPG Beef and a beacon in the night.

12:20 p.m. April 15---

We were hungry.
Adriana and I were camping on a mountaintop an hour south of Tupelo, Miss. along the Natchez Trace. It was around 10 p.m. and the heavens were clear. The sky was a star-filled skillet and the heat of possibility kept me warm against a cool breeze.
But were hungry for something. The boiled peanuts we picked up at the Shady Acres Fruit Stand on blue Highway 49 outside of Hattiesburg didn't do the trick. Adriana was longing for a can of Colt 45. I missed my Diet Mountain Dew.
We awoke early the next morning with empty stomachs. We exited the pristine trace around Tupelo and we agreed we would not stop until we found a Waffle House.
No Huddle House.
No Toddle House.
It had to be a Waffle House......


Early the next morning we spotted our first yellow rooftop five miles south of Memphis. We drove more than an hour on fumes because we were committed to WaffleHousing. Once you get off the backroads and onto the interstates Waffle House creates a sense of place.
I'm a long time WaffleHouser and I don't recall that many teenagers serving or cooking in the tiny restaurant. The older staff --always dressed in yellow and black---are generally a group of genteel working class people from the region. The vibe reminds me of a squirrelly family picnic.

The chain was founded in 1955 and the business grew as interstates uprooted America. But you could always count on Waffle House for waffles, grits, hash browns, T-bone steaks and some mighty fine coffee.
In 2005 I wrote a tribute to Waffle House in honor of the restaurant's 50th anniversary.
Since then Waffle House has opened a museum on the site of the original Waffle House, 2719 East College Ave. in Decatur, Ga. The memorabilia-filled restaurant has been restored to its 1955 feel. Unlike the restaurant, the museum is open only by appointment on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (www.wafflehouse.com.)

The chain has also grown to 1,600 restaurants in 25 states. You can find a Waffle House as far north as Indianapolis, Ind. There is a great Waffle House on Bluff Road in Collinsville, Ill., where I lick my wounds after Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals games.
Sometimes I think Adriana gets tired of hearing these road stories. This is when she A) starts talking in Spanish, or B) falls asleep in the front seat of my car.
Have I told you about the Duncan Hines Museum?
So here's an edited version of my 2005 Ode to Waffle House. Maybe she missed something and hopefully you'll learn something.
Like what's up with the Waffle House music?......

Every Waffle House has a jukebox full of country music and classic rock. Even better, the diner has its own stable of artists who appear on the jukebox. Many of the peppy songs were written by Atlanta-based Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia, who scored the 1981 hit "Pac-Man Fever." Eddie Middleton sings "Waffle Do Wop," and Danny Jones celebrates the fact that "There Are Raisins in My Toast," in the style of The Four Seasons. My favorite is Mary Welch Rogers' "Waffle House Family (Part 1)." Rogers is a former gospel singer who appeared on "The Lawrence Welk Show." She was married to Joe Rogers Jr., the 58-year-old CEO of Waffle House. His father, Joe Rogers Sr., is Waffle House co-founder. ("Waffle House Jukebox Favorites Vol. 1" CDs can still be ordered through (877) 9-WAFFLE.)

No one pitched me to write a story about all this. Waffle House does little in the way of promotion. Its hearty, greasy-spoon food is strictly word-of-mouth. So it was hard work to get co-founders Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner to talk about the 50th anniversary. Rogers Sr. is 85, Fornker is 86. The food must be good for you; Ray Kroc of McDonald's fame didn't live that long.

Rogers and Forkner are still alive as of this blog. They are both 90 years old.

In 1949, Rogers bought a ranch house from Forkner in Avondale Estates, a suburb of Atlanta. Forkner lived two houses down. Rogers was vice president of the Toddle House chain, established in 1932. (Toddle House was founded by Fred Smith. His son Frederick Wallace Smith started Federal Express.)
Forkner was in real estate, and he and Rogers became friends. In a separate interview from Atlanta, Forkner said, "I told Joe we needed a Toddle House in the neighborhood. He said, 'You build the restaurant, and I'll show you how to run it." On Labor Day, 1955, Rogers and Forkner opened the first Waffle House right there in Avondale Estates.

McDonald's influenced the naming of the Waffle House. "We started around the same time as you boy's McDonald's carry-out concept in Des Plaines," Rogers said in a rare interview from Alpharetta, Ga., outside of Atlanta. "I wanted people to know you had to come in, because if you tried to carry a waffle out, it would get a little flimsy."

Rogers merely shifted the ideas that worked at Toddle House, such as waffles with pecans, into the Waffle House concept. He always served lots of grits, which Rogers likes to call "Georgia ice cream." Toddle House also was known for its chocolate pie, drenched with cornstarch and sugar. Toddle House was extinct by the early 1970.

Waffle House is headquartered in Nocross, Ga. Rogers described the chain's geography: "We go up to Indianapolis, out to Ft. Collins, Colo., turn southeast and go down to Phoenix, come back around and go into Delaware and south of Washington, D.C. ... We stay out of cold country because we're 24-hours. When I was with Toddle House, I spent some nights in Cleveland where there was nobody on the streets but me. You have the same expenses, and you're taking in nothing. So we try to stay out of the snow line."

Waffle Houses started in downtowns, but Rogers and Forkner soon moved them out of town around the birth of the interstate highway system. "We have about 20 real estate boys who study this stuff," Rogers said. "Sometimes we put one on the south side of the interstat, then we will go put one on the north side. We have found out that people going north will not go to the other side. So we do well on both sides. We call 'em double-ups."

The diner took the high road during the civil rights movement. During 1961 sit-in demonstrations at all-white restaurants in downtown Atlanta, protesters descended on the Waffle House at Peachtree and 10th Street. Rogers calmed the demonstration by inviting anyone who wanted a bite to eat to come in the store.
Anyone.

Waffle House is a popular fork in the road for minor league baseball teams and country music stars. When Michael Jordan played baseball in Birmingham, Ala., he would lead his teammates into Waffle Houses throughout the Southern League. Regular Waffle House customers include country legend Merle Haggard and actor Billy Bob Thornton. A Waffle House even was featured in a scene in the 2002 Britney Spears movie "Crossroads."

"We're the poor man's Ritz-Carlton," Rogers said. "We've sobered up more drunks at night than the police department. Coffee is our biggest seller. Then waffles. We're the largest T-Bone steak seller in the United States. We like to get you in and out in 22 minutes. Put your watch on next time and if we don't do it, let me know."

In 2000, Rogers wrote a 200-page memoir called Who's Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer?, which was given only to friends. He was born and reared in Jackson, Tenn., and migrated to Memphis, which was home base for Toddle House. There he lived near the corner of Poplar and Perkins, where his neighbor was a pre-Graceland Elvis Presley. "He was a fine gentleman," Rogers recalled. "He'd come into a Toddle House, you'd say something to him and he would stand up. As long as his mother lived, Elvis was in good shape. Elvis couldn't handle it when his mother died."

Rogers never thought Waffle House would last 50 years. "I thought we'd get to 25 and Tom and myself would go fishing," he said with a laugh.

And all that time, Rogers has been loyal to his purveyors. If you laid all the fine hickory-smoked Bryan bacon end-to-end that Waffle House serves in a year, it would stretch from Atlanta to Los Angeles and back seven times (21,000 miles of bacon). Rogers said, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I hardly buy from somebody I don't fish and hunt with. They become friendly enough with you that if you have problems you sit down and talk about them."

No doubt over a cup of coffee and some grits at the nearest Waffle House.

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2 Comments

Ah, the Awful Waffle. Nice piece! Would that it were as easy to quickly locate quality boiled peanuts. With Global Boiling (see my link above), maybe someday it will be...

Love the Waffle House! Love their breakfasts especially! Great bacon? Better sausage patties! Wandering around Augusta, Georgia in 1998 one night in the wee hours, their waitress told me how to find an old friend who was only 30 minutes away! Thanks to the good Lord for sending her to me. She started up a conversation, and from then on, I always ate at a Waffle House because of the friendly staff!

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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