Waffle House: Pop Culture Icon

Waffle House: Pop Culture Icon
Waffle House remains cemented in pop culture as a place where one can enjoy a meal with friends at any hour. This image of a fun, all night hangout has recently been tarnished by multiple allegations of racism on the part of both customers and employees. Our group feels the best way to combat this negative association between the restaurant and discrimination would be for Waffle House to become positively involved in charities to support historically African American communities. By releasing more information and keeping an open relationship with the media, Waffle House will be able to more effectively contest negative publicity.
Waffle House was founded in Avondale Estates, Georgia in 1955 by Joe Rogers, Sr. and Tom Forkner. Waffle House had humble beginnings in a small house in a local neighborhood. The founders simply wanted a place to dine with friends and enjoy the company of others. Rogers and Forkner gradually built their dynasty by adding a restaurant here and there as they had “the money, someone to run it, and a great location,” (Waffle House, 2005).
The basic premise of this southern restaurant, devoted to “pancake’s crispier cousin,” was simple southern cooking and keeping overhead low (Hoovers, 2005). The restaurant chain embodies the spirit and culture of the1950s from the simple cash only payment policies down to the jukebox full of old time favorites found within every restaurant. The chain has altered its decorum and menu offerings minimally since it first opened in 1955. Waffle House has gained its fame for being open twenty-four hours a day and three hundred sixty- five days a year, regardless of bad weather or national holidays.

Waffle House has a few simple mottos according to its founders, including
“wanting a restaurant for our friends to come in and eat and visit with us,” (Waffle House, 2005). Other mission statement includes quality food and quality conversation at reasonable prices along with treating workers like family. Founder, Joe Rogers Sr., described Waffle House’s manta as personalized, friendly service. To accomplish this, employees follow simple rules such as “to win friends, be one,” and “a smile makes the food taste better,” (Waffle House, 2005).

Rogers once compared the typical Waffle House customer to the old cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead. The co-founder then went on to describe the customer as someone who has “been kicked out of his house, and he’s looking for someone to be kind to him,” (Osinski, 2004). Furthermore, Rogers says Waffle House has positioned itself, not only an all-night establishment serving quality food at low prices, but also as a friend to those customers who need one. Waffle House’s job, Rogers notes, is to “make people feel better because they ate with us,” (Osinski, 2004)
Waffle House has quickly become a pop culture icon despite the company’s lack of significant public relations campaigns. The corporation uses little advertising and releases few details about its operations to the public. Despite the company’s poor public relations efforts, Waffle House has been featured on Rosie O’Donnell Show, the cover of Hootie & The Blowfish’s album, the movies Tin Cup and Crossroads, and was featured in the R;B group 112’s music video. Countless celebrities and public figures such as Faith Hill, Former President George Bush, Reese Witherspoon, Jay-Z, and Billy Bob Thorton have eaten at Waffle House restaurants.

Another facet of the Waffle House’s unique appeal is that it serves as a meeting place for a very diverse clientele. Rogers said “On any given day, you can have a bank president sitting beside a ditch digger,” (Osinski, 2004). Part of the charm of Waffle House restaurants is this mystery of who could be dining there any time you enter its doors. The atmosphere at the around the clock Waffle House restaurants differentiates it from other competitors such as Denny’s or Shoney’s.

Waffle House is the number two family-style restaurant chain in the United States, behind Denny’s (Hoovers, 2005). Also, Waffle House ranked in the top five “Around the Clock Eats” on the Food Network (Waffle House, 2005). The company has nearly 1,400 of its 1950s style diners that they own or franchise in 25 predominately southern states (Hoovers, 2005). Of the 1,400 restaurants, Waffle House owns 675 of the locations and franchises the remaining restaurants. Waffle House’s key competitors are Denny’s, Huddle House, Shoney’s, and IHOP.

Waffle House is a privately owned corporation that is not forced to, and does not, release significant financial details to the public. The corporation saw a sales growth of 1.4% with $415 million in sales in 2004. Also, Waffle House has 30,000 employees working in their various restaurants. The employee growth rate was 145% for 2004. Joe Rogers, Jr. took over as CEO of Waffle House in 1973. With him, Rogers brought rigorous training and an incentive based compensation mentality.

Despite recent allegations of racism, Waffle House has historically welcomed all races, even during the years of racial segregation. While many all-white restaurants were experiencing sit-ins during 1961 to protest segregation, Rogers invited protestors into Waffle House (Osinski, 2004). Rogers not only permitted protestors to dine, but welcomed them into his restaurant as well. Before Rogers’ invitation, no African American had asked to eat at a Waffle House restaurant. In 1968, after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, many stores and restaurants were closing due to race riots. However, Waffle House chose to remain open and serve all customers (Osinski 2004). Rogers said, “We haven’t ever mistreated anybody, so why should we have to go home?” (Osinski 2004). African American leaders later thanked Rogers and the Waffle House for remaining open.

Over the years, Waffle House has been plagued by the perception of racial and gender discrimination and unfair treatment of employees due to several lawsuits. In 1981, the US Department of Labor sued Waffle House for giving “inordinately low wages” to managers who also served as cooks. When Waffle House won its case in 1983, it became extremely “tight lipped,” and didn’t readily share information with outside sources (Hoovers, 2005). In 1997, Waffle House was ordered by a federal judge to pay $8.1 million to a former human resources employee who charged the company of sexual harassment and “egregious conduct,” (Hoovers, 2005). The year 2000, brought yet another lawsuit to the chain. This race related allegation involved a manager firing black workers to make the employee makeup a more accurate representation of the predominately white community the restaurant served.
Even Waffle House franchisees have not been able to escape lawsuits in recent years. The largest Waffle House franchisee, Northlake Foods, was hit with a racial discrimination lawsuit in 1999 when a white cook denied service to five African American males. Another franchisee, Treetop Enterprises, was forced to pay $3 million to one hundred twenty-five employees who were made to work eighty hours a week despite being hired for only fifty-three.
Of late, the lawsuits against Waffle House have become more numerous, the allegations more serious, and the findings more public than ever before. In recent years, the chain has been hit with a series of lawsuits claiming severe racial discrimination against minorities, primarily African Americans. These allegations have come from largely Southern states, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia and involve the breaking of several civil rights laws (Atlanta Business Chronicle, 2005).
Over fifty African-American customers have come forward to describe incidents of blatant racial discrimination. These allegations include workers who announced that they did not have to serve African-American customers, served unsanitary, burned, and fly-infested food to African-Americans, ignored African-Americans while White customers were seated and served in a timely manner, and in general, tossing racial slurs around in a casual manner (Atlanta Business Chronicle, 2005). African-American customers have also been required to pre-pay for food while Caucasian customers were not; they have also endured segregated seating once inside the restaurant (Campbell, 2005).
One noteworthy example of racial discrimination occurred in 2003 when an Alabama businessman stopped at a Douglasville, Georgia Waffle House on his way to Atlanta. Enrique Lang and his wife were not seated by employees while Caucasian customers were. Ultimately, the couple was seated at a table that had not been cleared. When Lang asked for the table to be cleaned, a manager recommended that he “Go to Church’s Chicken, Leroy” (Tierney, 2005).
Another incident in Chesapeake, Virginia took place in August 2003. Five patrons, who were in town for a baby shower, were also ignored by restaurant employees, so they sat at a booth and cleaned it themselves. After finally receiving the food they ordered, they noticed that flies were “large, black, mixed into the white grits, and obviously visible” (Messina, 2005). When the patrons complained, nothing was done about the situation, and employees insisted that they pay for the bill. Because they refused, the police were called and the patrons were accused of attempting to walk out on the bill (Messina, 2005).
When a company’s reputation and image are blatantly attacked by allegations such as these mentioned, it is the purpose of the public relations group of the organization to salvage this image and reinstate the trust of their customers. The discrimination cases against Waffle House could possibly be very detrimental to the company’s established customer base. It is the responsibility of Waffle House public relations to do everything to comfort their customers about the accusations of racial discrimination. Whether or not this has been accomplished is the subject under question.

Over fifty African-American customers have come forward to file complaints about Waffle House incidents of blatant racial discrimination. There have also been multiple lawsuits filed against Waffle House, Inc. regarding these discrimination issues. Taking these statistics in to account, it is easy to say that this is a very public issue. Waffle House, however, did not address all of its publics when dealing with this crisis at hand. In response to the situation, Waffle House, Inc. issued a press release on January 18, 2005, responding to the charges brought forward by the Washington Lawyers Committee (Waffle House, 2005).
The press release deals directly with the cases brought against the company. The press release begins by stating, “The goal of Waffle House restaurants is to ensure each of our annual 160 million customers enjoys a pleasant and rewarding dining experience. This is achieved partly due to the fact that Waffle House, Inc. trains its employees to fulfill the customers’ needs, regardless of race, color, religion, age, gender, national origin or disability,” (Waffle House, 2005). These first statements are meant to comfort the reader and the average patron of the restaurant. They want the reader to feel like Waffle Houses takes preventative measures towards problems of discrimination, and that they have discussed with their employees that these actions are inappropriate. Next, the press release states, “Waffle House, Inc. has no tolerance for discrimination in our restaurants, and we react swiftly and decisively if we find a violation of our anti-discrimination policies” (Waffle House, 2005). The press release goes on to discuss the cases brought against them by the Washington Lawyers Committee.
The more legal aspect of the press release states: “In response to the recent highly inflammatory accusations made through the Washington Lawyers’ Committee in its third press conference in just over one year, we will not respond to the specifics of each case through the press, but instead will continue to defend our proud and diverse employee-owners through the courts” (Atlanta Business Chronicle, 2005). In the same press release, they appeal to the judgment of the courts when they state, “We are confident the courts and juries will continue to favorably assess our systemic efforts and our actions in preventing discrimination, as they have in the two cases that have already been presented to a jury. In both cases, the jury quickly and unanimously found no acts of discrimination occurred at Waffle House restaurants as asserted by the plaintiffs, and relieved Waffle House, Inc. from any liability whatsoever. In the first case, the court ordered the plaintiff to reimburse Waffle House certain defense costs. Waffle House will present a second bill of costs in these cases in the next several days and expects the court will again order plaintiffs to reimburse Waffle House for certain costs” (PR Newswire Association, 2005). They believe that the findings of the judiciary system will serve as their best defense, and they are confident that the courts will come to similar conclusions in the future.
The company decided not to deal directly with the press about these cases, but to let the court rulings speak for themselves. Of the two cases that had already been presented to a jury at the time of the press release, the jury ruled that no discrimination had taken place in either case. Waffle House relies on the strength of these verdicts to uphold the reputation of their organization. They felt that publicly releasing the verdicts of these cases would be enough refutation to these claims of discrimination. Those who received this press release may now realize the lies in these discrimination claims, but many people affected by these occurrences most likely did not receive this press release. Waffle House’s decision not to deal with this event by trying to reach the entire population affected may not have been the best tactic (Waffle House, 2005).
Waffle House also tried to divert attention from the discrimination cases and put its name in to press in a positive way. On February 2, 2005, Waffle House releases another press release about their 50th anniversary and the festivities that will be involved in this celebration. This press release was released just sixteen days after their press release in response to the discrimination cases and court trials. By creating this celebration, Waffle House tried to create positive press coverage that would hopefully drown out the negative coverage they had been receiving (Waffle House, 2005).

The main focus of the 50th anniversary celebration is to show how much Waffle House loves and appreciates each and every one of their customers. Waffle House president Bert Thornton said, “Since 1955 the Waffle House system has served 2.6 billion customers so it is the perfect time to show how much we appreciate our customers and associates for making us the phenomenon we’ve become” (Waffle House, 2005). The corporation plans to do this by holding a “We Love Our Customers Contest” in which each participating location will chose the top fifty customers and award them with Waffle House 50th anniversary memorabilia. Waffle House plans to make this a year long celebration which will include a summer customer contest, National Waffle Week celebrations, and the Stone Mountain Chili Cook-Off. They will also release a special 50th anniversary song which can only be heard in Waffle House restaurants. Outside of the restaurants, Waffle House is also planning to be the official restaurant sponsor of the 35th annual Peachtree Road Race. They are also planning to open a display in the World of Coke in Atlanta which will include historical restaurant photos, associate uniforms, and a replica of the Waffle House high counter (Waffle House, 2005).
While the 50th anniversary is a great way to draw attention away from the discriminatory accusations, diverting attention just it sweeps those occurrences under the proverbial rug. Even though the celebration events will promote positive moral among most customers, it can not be promised that this event will directly impact the African American population. Since this population was directly impacted by the original accusations and court cases, our group felt that something should be done to focus completely on boosting their confidence in the restaurants care and concern.
Our solution to this would be something directly involving the African American community with acts of kindness and service. We feel this would show the public that Waffle House is very upset by the charges against them and that they strive to serve all of their guests. Our public relations plan consists of a 5K walk benefiting inner-city schools. This event would be planned to take place simultaneously at one location in each city where a Waffle House restaurant is located. People would pay approximately a fifteen-dollar entry fee to participate in the 5K. After the race, Waffle House would then provide a full free breakfast for all the participants. Others not involved in the event can pay five-dollars to eat at the benefit breakfast. All of these proceeds from this event, which we will call Waffle House Walk for Inner City Schools, will then be donated to the inner-city school system in order to promote equal opportunity in education. This would promote positive morale with all of the people involved the day of the Waffle House Walk, those who hear about the event, and those impacted by the generous donation to the school system. This is the type of event needed to reach everyone who heard about or were directly impacted by the discrimination cases.

Due to the recent allegations and negative publicity, Waffle House finds itself in quite the public relations quandary. Not only is the decor of the chain dated to the 1950’s, it seems as though recently, the treatment of customers has allegedly been taken to the 1950’s as well. We feel that our plan will help reinstate positive relations with the African-American community and all others affected by these incidences.
Works Cited
Atlanta Business Chronicle. (2005, January 18). Waffle house hit with discrimination
suits. January 18, 2005. Retrieved March 19, 2005 from www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/stories/2005/01/17/daily 15.html
Campbell, Tom. (2004, September 30). Suit names waffle house/two filings are the
latest in a set of similar cases going back four years that allege discrimination.

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