In March of 2016 I began dating my girlfriend Natalie, a girl who was born and raised in Jackson and who had the knowledge to back it up. Me being an out-of-town transplant, she thought that it was of great importance for me to learn a little culture and history of this city that we know and love. I gladly complied.
Usually these lessons were unplanned and casual. As things came up in conversation she would explain to me the history as best she knew it. One of those things was Waffle House.
Waffle House held a close place for us because we shared one of our early dates there. (Where else does a person get brunch in Jackson on a Friday?) However, one day as we were driving past the old West Jackson building on Deaderick, she pointed and said, “My parents almost bought that house. Ya know, I’m pretty sure the guy who created Waffle House lived there. Cool, right?”
She was right. And knowing what I now know about Jackson and Waffle House, it makes incredible sense.
Joe Rogers, Sr., one of the co-founders of Waffle House, was born in Jackson, Tennessee, on November 30, 1919. Born and raised at 291 West Deaderick Street, Rogers was a Jackson boy through and through. His father worked on the railroads from the time of his birth until he lost his job during the Depression. Throughout that time Rogers was busy at work, taking jobs around town throwing papers and working on a laundry truck. However, his most memorable job was as a carhop at one of Hicksville’s favorite barbecue restaurants, The Hut. After graduating with Jackson High School’s class of 1938, Rogers began working for a local dime store, S.H. Kress.
In 1940 Rogers joined the Army, and in the five years that followed he would meet his wife, earn his wings as a fighter pilot, have his first child, and garner the rank of Captain. After his discharge in 1945, Rogers moved his family to Memphis and he began to work for Toddle House, a national chain restaurant founded nearly twenty years earlier. His time in Memphis was short, however, as he and his family moved to the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates soon thereafter. They moved into a house sold to him by fellow Avondale resident Tom Forkner. This friendship with Tom eventually became a business partnership, and from the minds of these two men came the establishment that we now know fondly as Waffle House.
Rogers and Forkner opened the first Waffle House in Avondale Estates on Labor Day of 1955. Six years after the first store opened, Rogers finally left Toddle House and began to work full-time at Waffle House. Their philosophy was simple; they wanted to provide quality and consistent service to people around the clock. This philosophy seemed to resonate with the public as well because by the time Joe started working full-time in 1961, there were four sites open, and they were still growing.
Today Waffle House boasts more than 1,500 restaurants, per their website, and their iconic yellow sign is a recognizable and welcoming sight across the country. Their success has been far-reaching from the beginning, and I believe that a good part of that has to do with the simple philosophy of those two friends, all the way back in 1955. On the Waffle House website, it states that the mission of the restaurant is “to deliver a unique experience to our customers through delivering great food, friendly, attentive service, excellent price, and a welcoming presence.” It is because of these descriptors that I tend to think of Waffle Houses as third places.
Now I know that when most people think of third places they think of the local coffee shop or the family pub: spots that are owned by someone who lives right down the street from you and whose kids go to the same neighborhood school as your kids. These assumptions are valid, as most imaginings of the third place are locally made and owned. However, I think the designation of third place consists of a lot more than who owns the spot, and how close in proximity they live to you. Third places are often loosely defined, but certain patterns seem to develop in the definitions that are out there. They often require no membership and rarely require set plans. They are places that ground a community. They are hospitable. All of these qualities seem uncharacteristic of chain restaurants that usually feel impersonal and mindless, but I think that Waffle House has a leg up against other chains for a very particular reason: its founder was born in Jackson.
Maybe you call this bias, but I like to think that Waffle House’s Jacksonian roots have a great deal to do with the hominess that is normally associated with it. A large part of the culture of the Southern United States is centered around hospitality. More than that, it seems that Jackson has some sort of special monopoly on this hospitality. I have never been invited into as many homes as I have been in this city. I have never seen people rally around friends and neighbors and families as much as I have here. I have never seen folks so genuinely concerned for the well-being of others as I have in Jackson; at the end of the day, isn’t that all hospitality really is?
Joe Arnold, Sr., learned this at a very young age in Jackson. In his autobiography entitled Who’s Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer, he says “When you have no car, no television, no radio, no telephone, no newspaper, and little money in the house, you’re left with nothing but people—your family, your friends, your neighbors.” This mentality is at the center of the mission of Waffle House. Our uncanny third place is a constant reminder that people are what truly matter. Along those same lines, Waffle House is a hospitable place for us because it reminds us that we are all truly the same.
This sort of reminder is known to many as “leveling.” Third places are great examples of this concept. Inside the walls of a third place people are free to lay down some of the baggage that they are bringing in from the world outside. I am not suggesting that Waffle House is the cure for the class struggle; on the contrary, third places often have the capacity to create a culture that alienates people. What I am suggesting, though, is that it is a good reminder—and humbler—to know that I can eat the same waffles as both the richest and poorest person in Jackson, all while sitting in a building full of diversity. At the end of the day, our cups of coffee are being refilled from the same pot by the same waitress who says that she hasn’t seen you around here a lot lately but that she is glad that you are here now.
Perhaps I am just being idealistic, but I want to believe that Jackson had an effect on Waffle House. In his book, Arnold talks about working for a small dime shop in Jackson while growing up. He recalls how his manager always stayed optimistic even though the store had big competition down the road, and he gives this advice: “You never lose a satisfied customer.”
This piece of Jackson wisdom is at the center of Waffle House’s philosophy, and it is why the restaurant is such an important place for me today. I have been satisfied during late nights spent sitting in the Highland Waffle House, writing papers that were begun far too late and due far too soon. I have been satisfied by the morning spent over a pecan waffle, on a second date that I hoped wouldn’t be the last. I have been satisfied by the memory of being able to order a T-bone steak as a kid who was out way past his bedtime because, “It’s Waffle House. Eh, why not?” I have been satisfied by evenings spent there with roommates, catching up after a tough stretch in the semester and letting the night blur into the morning. Ultimately, in all of these experiences, I have been satisfied by the gentle invitation to remember that I am cared for, that I am human, and that I am truly the same as everyone else.
Shea McCollough was born and raised in Memphis and moved to Jackson in 2015 to attend Union University, where he is now a junior literature major and self-proclaimed believer in "getting a liberal arts degree and figuring it out later."
Photography provided by Waffle House.