Joseph Rogers Sr., creator of one of America’s largest restaurant chains and a key figure in spreading the South’s roadside-diner culture, has passed away, at the age of 97. He founded the Waffle House empire in 1955 with his Atlanta neighbor Tom Forkner after returning from the war and grilling burgers as a short-order cook up in New Haven, Connecticut. By the end of the ’70s, their single diner had exploded into a 400-restaurant chain, and today it’s obviously spread well beyond the South, to more than 2,100 locations in 25 states, each sporting that iconic yellow-block sign.
“I’m not an executive, I’m a waffle cook” is a belief Rogers expressed even as late as 2004. The menu (complete with pics) of cheap comfort food has always attracted a vast and loyal fan base — the burgers, coffee, eggs, T-bones, waffles, and of course the hash browns you can order scattered, smothered, covered, peppered, diced, and about a million other ways. Devotees over the years include breakfastarians, drunk college kids in the middle of the night, Kid Rock (who got arrested there), Insane Clown Posse (who also got arrested there), chef Sean Brock (who once took a turn at the grill), and Anthony Bourdain (who praised it as “a place you can go no matter how wrecked and obnoxious you are” and they will still be “nice to you”). Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton has even shamelessly labeled it “my favorite place to eat,” arguing that “like America itself,” it’s “filled with people from all walks of life, all races and classes, looking for a little bit of happiness and a personal connection.”
Rogers is survived by his wife of 74 years as well as by Forkner, who’s now 99. Rogers’s son Joe Junior, currently Waffle House’s chairman, paid his dad tribute in a statement that noted: “My father genuinely loved every customer who walked into a Waffle House … The customer always came first for him, and he made sure the customer came first for everyone who worked with him.”