Joe Rogers had a simple philosophy for Waffle House, the restaurant chain he co-founded in 1955. As well as serving up Southern-style breakfasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Rogers insisted that staff offer Southern-style hospitality. “We are not in the food business,” he said. “We are in the people business.” Words that built an American icon.
“We are in the people business”. How often have we heard this before? I’m sure the founder of Blockbuster said they were also in the people business. And the founder of Circuit City. And the founder of Blackberry. And the founder of Kodak. And Woolworth’s. And Pan Am. And Sports Authority. You get the point.
Innovation is detrimental to long-term relevancy, but being people-centric is the lifeblood of any organization – even if you are just serving waffles.
Companies spend billions of dollars on innovation but often miss the mark on the importance of investing in its people.
When Joe Rogers, Sr. purchased a home from Tom Forkner, in Avondale Estates, Georgia, in 1949, neither one knew where that relationship would take them.
Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner were neighbors – Joe working for a national restaurant chain, the Toddle House, and Tom in the local real estate business. Since employee ownership was not available with the Toddle House, the idea of starting a business they could own and share some ownership with each other seemed like a good idea. Joe and Tom wanted to create a restaurant focused on people – both the employees and customers – while serving quality food at a great value.
On Labor Day 1955, their dream became a reality- when the first Waffle House restaurant opened its doors for business in Avondale Estates, an Atlanta suburb, and an icon was born. After the first store opened, there were no plans for another store – but the first restaurant established the Waffle House tradition of providing the friendliest and most people-centric service in town. Customer loyalty developed and the business grew steadily. A couple of years later (1957) the second store opened and by 1961, there were four small restaurants. Each restaurant open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year – inspiring urban myth that “Waffle House doors have no locks.”
In 1961, Joe left Toddle House and went to work full-time at Waffle House. Tom went full time soon after. The 1960’s saw the emergence of a restaurant chain focused on putting people first. The company began to expand and new restaurants were built in Georgia and neighboring states. The “Yellow Sign” soon became a familiar landmark along city streets and interstate highways across the Southeast. Under the guiding philosophy of “we are in the people business,” Waffle House restaurants continued to grow in both new and existing markets.
Today, 60 years later, Waffle House operates more than 1,500 restaurants worldwide. Waffle House holds the title as the world’s leading server of waffles, omelets, T-bone steaks and more. The combination of great food, fast service and a friendly experience made Waffle House restaurants truly a unique American phenomenon.
Whatever product or service your company provides, where does “people” fit in your ranking? I’m sure most of us would claim our people come first, but do your results show it?
Our organizations are filled with Mission Statements, Vision Statements and Purpose Statements, but we fail to have People Statements.
Joe Rogers passed away this month. But his legacy lives on. We are not in the food business. We are in the people business. And he proved to the world what can happen to any company or organization that puts people first – even if you are just serving waffles.