Joseph W. Rogers, a founder of Waffle House, the restaurant chain that achieved a kind of cultural renown with its no-frills menu, attentive service and round-the-clock hours, died on Friday in Atlanta. He was 97.
The company announced his death on Monday. Joe Rogers Jr., who succeeded his father as chief executive in the late 1970s and remains chairman and controlling owner, said the elder Mr. Rogers died after having dinner with his wife of 74 years, Ruth, earlier in the evening.
Mr. Rogers and an Atlanta neighbor, Tom Forkner, founded the restaurant in 1955. At the time, Mr. Rogers was a senior official at a restaurant chain called Toddle House. Mr. Forkner was a real estate investor. The two were eager to own a restaurant in their neighborhood.
Even after starting the restaurant, Mr. Rogers kept his day job at Toddle House and moved to Memphis when he was promoted to vice president. But in 1961, frustrated that the company did not allow employees to acquire an ownership stake, he returned to Atlanta and devoted himself to Waffle House full time.
“If Toddle House had offered ownership to the management team, there never would have been a Waffle House,” Joe Rogers Jr. said in a phone interview.
Mr. Rogers and Mr. Forkner expanded the chain to about 400 restaurants by the late 1970s. Today, there are nearly 1,900 Waffle Houses in the United States, primarily in the Southeast, often along interstate highways. Of these, about 80 percent are company-owned. The rest are franchises.
Borrowing much from his previous employer — down to the waffle recipe, his son said — Mr. Rogers made Waffle House into a success in part by paying meticulous attention to customers, a management philosophy he imparted throughout the chain.
“I’ve walked into restaurants where workers are on the telephone calling, looking for an elderly customer who hadn’t been in in a while,” Joe Jr. said. “So it was all about the whole personal experience, relationships.”
Famously open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the restaurants have been used by at least one Federal Emergency Management Agency official to help gauge the severity of natural disasters.
W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator in the Obama administration, applied what he called “the Waffle House test.” If the local restaurant remained open after a hurricane, for example, it meant that power and water were very likely available.
Waffle House, a privately held company, had sales of a little more than $1 billion in 2015, making it the country’s 47th largest restaurant chain, according to estimates by Technomic, a restaurant industry consulting firm in Chicago.
Darren Tristano, Technomic’s president, attributed the chain’s success to its relatively small selection of highly “craveable” offerings and its unpretentious diner-style layout.
Rivals like International House of Pancakes have significantly altered their menus over the years, he said, but Waffle House has remained relatively faithful to its original model, allowing generations of adults to dine in roughly the same setting they did as children.
“This is something that’s very nostalgic,” Mr. Tristano said. “They’re true to their brand.”
Waffle House did not escape the ferment of the civil rights era, and it was the target of discrimination lawsuits in later years.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004, Mr. Rogers acknowledged that African-Americans had not patronized the restaurants early on.
But when civil rights protesters arrived outside a Waffle House in 1961, he said, he responded by asking them inside to dine.
“We actually accommodated everybody,” said the younger Mr. Rogers, who worked for his father at a nearby Waffle House at the time. “A lot of people have a stereotypical view of the South, that it was total segregation. That wasn’t the case.”
He added that African-American civic leaders expressed gratitude to his father for keeping restaurants open amid the rioting in many cities after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Still, in subsequent decades, workers and customers filed numerous lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
“I unearthed a policy of staffing restaurants on the basis of demographics,” said Keenan R. S. Nix, a lawyer who in the 1990s and early 2000s litigated several discrimination cases brought by employees and customers. One client alleged that the company had sought to cut back on the number of black workers in restaurants serving predominantly white customers.
Mr. Nix credited the company with changing its policies after these cases, some of which produced confidential settlements that he said “served the ends of justice.”
Joe Rogers Jr. said any policy changes at the company were not a response to litigation but part of a longer-term evolution. “Our law firm told us when they looked at all these things, ‘You’ve got to design better execution systems,’” he said. “It’s the growing pains of a big business.”
He blamed episodes of bias on “rogue employees” whom the company was not able to sift out when hiring.
Joseph Wilson Rogers was born in Jackson, Tenn., on Nov. 30, 1919, to Frank Hamilton and Ruth Elizabeth DuPoyster Rogers. His father was a railroad worker who lost his job during the Depression.
After high school, Mr. Rogers learned to pilot B-24 aircraft in the Army and trained other pilots.
Besides his wife, the former Ruth Jolley Rogers, and his son Joe, he is survived by another son, Frank; his daughters, Dianne Tuggle and Deborah Rogers; nine grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
Mr. Rogers remained involved with Waffle House into at least his late 80s. Most days he would spend several hours at the company’s headquarters in Norcross, Ga.; other times, he would show up at restaurants and mix with the customers.