Both men kept their day jobs during those early years, but the business developed a loyal following and quickly expanded. By the early 1960s, they were engaged in Waffle House full time.
The chain became a popular cultural touchstone known for its welcoming atmosphere; its ample menu of roadside staples like hash browns, eggs, steaks and waffles; and its all-day, everyday service.
Overnight traffic was crucial to Waffle Houseâs success, Mr. Forkner said, and he and Mr. Rogers tried to maximize it.
âOne supreme test of whether itâs a good location â take a real rainy, blistery Tuesday or Wednesday night at two oâclock in the morning, park your automobile there, and see how many cars pass,â he told Atlanta magazine in 2007. âIf you donât have many cars, you donât have a good spot.â
The restaurants are so reliably open that W. Craig Fugate, the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration, said that he had applied a âWaffle House Testâ for determining the severity of a natural disaster.
âIf a Waffle House is closed because thereâs a disaster, itâs bad,â Mr. Fugate joked in 2016 on âWait, Wait … Donât Tell Me!,â NPRâs comedy quiz show. âWe call it red. If theyâre open but have a limited menu, thatâs yellow.â
Today there are 1,859 Waffle Houses in 25 states, mainly in the Southeast. The company is privately held and does not release financial data, but Technomic, a restaurant industry consulting and research company, estimated that Waffle House had more than $1 billion in sales in 2015.
Mr. Forkner stepped out of his full-time job at Waffle House in the late 1970s, but remained a prominent figure in the company. A spokesman for Waffle House said Mr. Forkner had kept an office at the company headquarters in Norcross, Ga., and drove himself there until a few months ago.
Thomas Francis Forkner Sr. was born in Hawkinsville, Ga., on June 14, 1918, to Benjamin Forkner and the former Bessie Allison. His father oversaw the building of Avondale Estates and started the Forkner Realty Company.
Mr. Forkner graduated from Young Harris College in Georgia and earned a law degree in Atlanta from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law, which has since closed, before he was drafted into the Army in 1941. During the war, he was a counterintelligence agent and worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to transfer sensitive material in the making of atomic bombs from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to Los Alamos, N.M.
He met Martha Bishop while at Oak Ridge, and they married a few months later on Sept. 20, 1945. She died in March.
After the war, Mr. Forkner took over the family real estate business. After leaving his full-time position at…