For Waffle House, Most Things Will Never Change, Including Its Headquarters
Waffle House's headquarters looks slapped together, with a glass-paneled addition attached to a low-slung brick building. It also is easy to miss, perched behind the curtain of a tall black fence and below a two-lane street in Norcross, a suburban city 20 miles north of Downtown Atlanta.
The only way anyone would know they are at the headquarters of one of the world's largest restaurant chains is a solitary Waffle House flag, flapping in a cold breeze on a recent February afternoon.
As corporations chase the next gleaming standard of corporate real estate prestige, the Waffle House headquarters is as understated and homey as its more than 1,900 U.S. restaurants. Despite ranking among the 50 largest restaurant chains in the world, with revenues estimated in excess of $1.3B in 2017 alone, according to Restaurant Business, executives at this chain have no desire to follow the trend and move into one of the many new gleaming skyscrapers in the city.
“We feel like we didn't have to have the big cosmopolitan [headquarters] because our employees work here,” Waffle House External Affairs Director Pat Warner said, pointing to a handful of employees busing tables and cooking up an order of eggs and hash browns at a Waffle House restaurant just a quarter-mile from the headquarters.
“We try to keep our focus on the restaurants,” Warner said.
Waffle House could be one of the golden tickets of the office world, easily commanding the construction of a new headquarters facility, much like NCR has and Norfolk Southern is in the process of doing.
“A new corporate headquarters for Waffle House would be heavily sought-after by developers,” MidCity Real Estate Partners President Kirk Demetrops said. “Waffle House would have many options, including existing buildings, [or as the] lead tenant for a larger, new building or build-to-suit building.”
But this golden ticket might never be redeemed, Warner said. The company has no plans to move or build itself something shiny and new.
Waffle House opened its first restaurant in Avondale Estates in 1955. From that time, little has changed about how it operates and what it serves, from its use of Royal Cup for its coffee, its scattered, smothered and covered hash browns or its waffle recipe that has remained unchanged since its inception.
That has helped Waffle House become a pop culture icon, especially in the southeast U.S., where a majority of its restaurants are located. In many ways, its growth has hewed closely to the success of Chick-fil-A — another Atlanta restaurant icon — including its longtime customer loyalty and pop culture significance.
Waffle House is the subject of many songs, all playable on the jukeboxes located in each of its 1,950 restaurants, as well as numerous news programs, references in television and films and even the playful butt of late night television jokes.
Perhaps the two most notable incidents include when the late TV host Anthony Bourdain sung its praises during a 2015 episode of his CNN show, "Parts Unknown" and when Stephen Colbert, along with singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson penned a musical ode to the restaurant chain. That song is also available on Waffle House's jukeboxes.
All 300 employees at Waffle House HQ work in cubicles, everyone from administrative staff up to CEO Walt Ehmer and Chairman Joe Rogers Jr.
While a privately held company, Waffle House offers stock ownership to employees who have been with the company at least a year, Warner said. That helps the company not only produce worker loyalty, but also gives them a sense of ownership, regardless of their position, he said.
“Really, for us, overall this is our support center,” Warner said. “You won't see any cubes for our executive vice presidents. They work out of their cars.”
Waffle House plans to continue to grow, but not likely in new markets or states in the near future, Warner said. Instead, the company plans to continue to fill out more recent market entries, such as in Louisiana and South Florida. He declined to disclose how many new restaurants are expected to open this year.
Typical Waffle House restaurants are free-standing and situated next to major intersections or along highway exits. Warner said that is purposeful: The company seeks locations with high car traffic counts, especially where they can lure in a steady stream of business during what he called the “third shift.” Waffle House is always open, and red-eyed drivers or post-bar-hopping patrons who come in the wee hours of the morning are core customers.
Lately, the company is operating within an increasingly crowded field of quick-service chains, which grew by 8.9% last year, according to the industry research firm Technomic.
Warner conceded that the fight for market share as so many new restaurants sprout up on the playing field is an issue facing Waffle House and other established restaurant chains. But he said each location attempts to steep itself in each community it serves to quickly build up brand loyalty.
“The restaurant industry now is oversaturated. You can get quality food in places you couldn't in the past, like a gas station,” he said. “[Waffle Houses] all look the same and have the same menu, but each restaurant has its own personality to try to link them to the local community in which they serve.”
Warner said Waffle House's biggest stumbling block to growth is the ongoing national labor crunch. Waffle House employs 40,000 people across its entire business, most of whom serve inside the restaurants.
“Our bread-and-butter is delivering a quality business. We say all the time we're in the people business. And for us to thrive, we need the quality people behind the counter,” he said. “Finding those folks and keeping them, that's a challenge. If we have that, then everything [else] falls into place.”