Joseph W. Rogers, a Founder of Waffle House, Dies at 97

March 8, 2017

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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.


Diner to Get New Life as a Y Drive In Building Housed Rock’s in Huntsville

January 28, 2012

Diner To Get

Diner to get new life as Y Drive In

HUNTSVILLE – A rusty sign that reads Rock’s Drive In stands in front of what used to be a thriving diner locals call the “Y.” The vacant two-story diner is run down, with rotting thresholds and flooring, but residents ask regularly when the old diner will reopen, said Darrell Frederick, who bought the building in October.

“I want to bring the place back,” Frederick said.

Frederick plans to use the locals’ nickname – which refers to the Y-shaped intersection of U.S. 412 and Arkansas 72 – when he opens the new Y Drive In this spring, he said.

Nationwide, more people are taking their chances and opening restaurants as the economy recovers, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm in Chicago. But in Arkansas, not a lot of people leave stable jobs to start their own restaurants, said Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association.

That’s just what Frederick, 36, plans to do when he leaves his longtime job with Packers Sanitation Service Inc. in Huntsville to run the diner. The single father said he plans to give up a good income of about $1,600 each week for something he is passionate about – running his family’s former restaurant.

The restaurant first opened in 1965. Frederick’s parents, Dixie and Troy Frederick, bought the diner in 1972 and ran it as Troy’s and Dixie’s until they retired and sold the business in 2006, Frederick said.

The new owners struggled, then closed Rock’s Drive In. A lender took over the property last year, courthouse records show.

Frederick said the diner sat empty for several years. Courthouse records show Dixie Frederick bought the building for $36,000 in July and then the title passed to her son.
The county appraised the building at $77,450 this year, down from $117,950 in May 2008, courthouse records show.

Nationwide, the restaurant industry has churned, with about 4,000 restaurants a year closing since the recession started, Tristano said. Many of those reopened under different owners, he said.

There are about 70 food service establishments in Madison County, Arkansas Health Department spokesman Ann Russell wrote in an e-mail. Restaurants have opened and closed in the county over the past few years, but the number has remained consistent, she said.
Arkansas has roughly 13,500 food-service establishments, about the same as previous years, she said.

The state does not track the number of family-owned diners, McNulty said. Tristano estimated there are only about 5,000 drive-in diners in the U.S. that are family run.

Frederick said he knows he has his work cut out for him. He expects renovation costs to run about $150,000. The diner is in bad enough shape that Frederick calls it “the beast.” On an overcast December afternoon, Frederick opened the diner’s doors to let in light. The cinder-block building hasn’t had running water or electricity for years. Dusty, commercial-grade kitchen equipment is stored with arcade machines that Frederick bought for the second-floor room. He has two jukeboxes he bought in Tulsa and plans to install.

While standing in what will be the game room, Frederick talked about dinner menus that will include fried chicken and hamburgers. He is considering whether to reopen the spots where cars used to park at the drive-in. He said he wants to add a play area with balls for children to bounce in.

He envisions his 7-year-old daughter spending time in the restaurant after school, and Huntsville teenagers making the place a hangout.

“It will be a queen when I’m done,” Frederick said while looking over the old diner. “It will go from beast to beauty.”

View the full article on Arkansas Democratic Gazette


Restaurants Ready to Help Diners Keep their Healthier-Eating Resolutions

January 25, 2012

Restaurants Ready

Restaurants ready to help diners keep their healthier-eating resolutions

It’s time again for the January Effect — that brief but intense interest in healthier eating that always sweeps the country this time of year.

In case you haven’t noticed, restaurants everywhere are introducing new menu items with fewer calories, less fat or reduced sugar.

The press releases and ads began piling up like a snowdrift in my inbox as soon as Christmas was over.

Among them was one from Pei Wei — the quick-serve little sister of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro — touting a new “stock velveted” option for its chicken dishes, which significantly reduces their fat content. For seven of the dishes, the fat reduction is 30% or more.

“Instead of wok-seared using our soybean oil,” the ad says, “we steam the tender chicken in our vegetable stock seasoned with onions and ginger.”

For the Caramel Chicken, the velveted option means 17 fat grams per serving instead of 26 — and 390 calories instead of 500. Mandarin Kung Pao Chicken ordered velveted style has 19 fat grams instead of 27, and 360 calories instead of 470.

Starbucks has rolled out a new Skinny Mocha weighing in at just 110 calories for a 12-ounce “tall” size. The company calls it the “perfect mix of espresso, bittersweet skinny mocha sauce and steamed nonfat milk … lightly topped with foam.” Its original Caffé Mocha ranges from 290 calories (with whole milk and whipped cream) to 170 calories for a nonfat-no-whip version.

Applebee’s is bragging about three new complete entrées — including starches and garnishes — totaling less than 550 calories each: a garlic-marinated 7-ounce sirloin, sizzling Asian shrimp-and-broccoli and sizzling chili-lime chicken.

The new items give it a total of five entrées under 550 calories, including its signature sirloin with garlic-herb shrimp, which was its best-selling entrée in the first two months of 2011. It was the first time in company history that “a lower-calorie entrée was the best-selling independent menu item,” the company says.

The list could go on and on.

The increase in supposedly healthier, lower fat dishes began last year — or at least there was an uptick in menu descriptions of them, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant industry research firm.

Its MenuMonitor database, which tracks trends and terms on the menus of some 2,000 restaurants, found that the words “low fat” increased 33% on menus last year, compared to 2010, while the terms “fat-free” or “nonfat” went up 12%. The phrase “no sugar” also increased by 51%, the data showed.

“Operators are increasingly interested in touting healthy benefits on their menus,” Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano noted in the report, which emphasized that the restaurant industry is ready to help diners keep their healthier-eating resolutions for 2012.

The trend is likely to continue this year, if for no other reason than the expected implementation of federal rules requiring chain restaurants to post some nutritional information on menus and menu boards. (The rules were supposed to go into effect in 2011 but were delayed because too many requirements were unclear.)

“Companies are trying to get ahead of the menu legislation by offering more items that are low-fat, and making their menus more transparent,” so customers know more about what they’re ordering, said Technomic consumer research manager Kelly Weikel in Chicago.

But whether we’re really ordering more of those better-for-us menu items is far from certain.

“It’s hard to tell,” Weikel said. “Even if people say they want to buy healthier food more often, they often don’t. One thing we know, though, is that consumers like to see (a health choice) on the menu. They want to go to a restaurant offering healthy options, but they may order an indulgent, craveable item. You might even go in thinking you’ll order something healthy — but then you get something else.”

And pretty soon, before we know it, here comes another January, and we get to try it again.

View the full article on Detroit Free Press