Waffle House: Pop Culture Icon Essay

This essay has a total of 3221 words and 14 pages.

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
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