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Business students grill Waffle House CEO

For Joe Rogers Jr., it’s all about people.

Rogers, CEO of Waffle House Inc., told students at the the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business his secret to success is focusing on customers and employees.

“If you hire good, friendly people and teach them to be good waiters and cooks, you can be successful,” he told students at an Oct. 21 speech. “The people deliver the Waffle House experience. The food is secondary to the service — it’s all about the people.”

Rogers spoke as part of the Daniels College of Business CEO Student Forum series, a lecture series that brings business leaders to campus to interact with students.

Waffle House — an iconic diner-style restaurant — began in 1955 when founders Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner opened the first location in Avondale Estates, Ga. Throughout the 1960s, the company grew exponentially. When Rogers Jr. took over the company in 1973, he decided to stop franchising and halted the chain’s growth temporarily in 1980.

“We decided we wanted to be an operation of quality, not quantity,” he said. “We found that the slower we went, the further we got.” The chain now operates 1,600 stores nationwide and is the second largest 24-hour restaurant chain behind McDonald’s, which qualifies because of its 24-hour drive-throughs.

Rogers believes in supporting his employees and promoting from within. Every person on the Waffle House organizational chart started as an entry-level trainee within the organization, he said. “We haven’t hired anyone from outside — if we had to do that, we wouldn’t be doing our job.”

Over the years, the management team has developed its own leadership and management strategy, Rogers said.

The company’s first leadership maxim is simple — “show up.”

Rogers told the story of one manager who made it into an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina before many law enforcement and rescue officials. “People were hungry, so he did what he had to do to get the store open,” Rogers said. “He showed up.”

Other Waffle House leadership strategies include seeing reality and taking action, determining the right systems approach and building strong relationships.

“Above all, do it with honor,” Rogers said. “Remember, we’re playing to win, but you have to put honor before winning.”

After his talk, Rogers took questions from Daniels business students about his plans for future growth, how he views failure and the nature of entrepreneurship.

“If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you better enjoy the people in the field,” Rogers said.

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