He was the heart behind one of the most beloved food institutions in the South.
Anyone traveling the South with a craving for breakfast at dinnertime knows the beauty of seeing the iconic backlit tiles of a Waffle House sign in the distance. With over 1,800 locations in 25 states, the roadside staple for late-Sunday morning breakfasts and all-nighters is a beloved, integral meeting place throughout much of the country. Joe Rogers Sr., one of the men that founded the sit-down, fast service diner chain died on March 3rd. He was 97 years old.
Rogers himself started his career as a short order cook and regional manager at Toddle House before teaming with Thomas Forkner, a neighbor and real estate broker, to open their first Waffle House location back in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Georgia. The menu at the 24-hour restaurant featured only 16 items, the most popular of which became the restaurant’s namesake: waffles.
If Forkner was the business mind behind Waffle House, Rogers was the heart, championing friendly customer service and often working behind the counter himself. “Our job,” he said, “is to make people feel better because they ate with us.”
While Rogers and Forkner removed themselves from day-to-day operations back in the 1970s, the pair would still come into the company’s Norcross, Georgia offices until both were well into their 80s. At 99 Forkner is still carrying the Waffle House legacy, along with Rogers’ widow, two daughters and two sons, one of whom, Joe Rogers Jr., is now chairman of Waffle House, Inc.
Arguably, the secret to Waffle House’s success is its simplicity. Waffles, pancakes, eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy make up most of a menu that touts hearty fare and affordable prices (which couldn’t even be paid for with a credit card until 2006). But there is also an element of nostalgia and kitsch (like a jukebox full of original waffle-themed songs) that keeps even the most prominent food aficionados coming back. Heck, even Anthony Bourdain and Sean Brock love it.
That appeal is right in line with what Joe Rogers Sr. was going for all along. As Rogers would often put it, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “We’re not in the restaurant business. We’re in the people business.”
This article originally appeared on Food & Wine.