Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer represents a kind of servant leader that, like the business he oversees, is what he calls a “unique American phenomenon.”
“It would be easy for me to sit in my office all day and send a memo out, send out a video, but is that what the business needs? We have 45,000 employees — that’s over 2 million shifts a year that have to be staffed, have to be managed, where we have to treat customers right.”
So rather than sitting in his office all day, what is Ehmer doing? The Georgia Tech alum, who has remained highly involved in the school through the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, President’s Advisory Board and more, shared his vision of company leadership in the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship’s Impact Series at Scheller College of Business.
“I want to talk about the Waffle House journey and the things I have learned along the way,” Ehmer said to a packed auditorium of students and faculty wearing the Waffle House hats he had enthusiastically passed around before the talk.
“What is it about Waffle House that makes us unique?"
Ehmer can speak to this more than almost anyone else. He joined the company almost thirty years ago and ascended to the CEO role in 2012, taking over from Waffle House founder Joe Rogers Jr.
Joe Rogers, Jr. is the son of company founder, Joe Rogers, Sr. Rogers, Sr. originally wanted to get into the soft drink business, but founded Waffle House in 1955 after a stint in the restaurant industry. The first restaurant opened in Avondale Estates in Atlanta, and the company has been loyal to their hometown ever since.
Waffle House grew quickly, employing a small-footprint, repeatable franchise model. They now are in 25 states, serve food in over 2,000 restaurants, and employ 45,000. They remain private and 100 percent employee-owned.
“We are one family,” said Ehmer. “Everybody does the same thing, everybody wears one uniform. But uniquely, every restaurant is also its own family."
This structure means the management team is beholden to no outside interests and can invest in its team however it wants. Ehmer points out that they typically don’t hire senior managers from the outside, preferring instead to train and promote their own dedicated team members for within — managers-in-training become restaurant managers, then district managers, eventually working their way up to senior management.
Ehmer does point to a few specific things about the business in regards to the restaurant itself that makes Waffle House truly stand out.
1. The food: Unlike many in its category, all Waffle House menu items are fresh and cook-to-order. Ehmer himself eats at least two meals a day there. “We start with good ingredients and we cook it to order right in front of you.”
2. The geography: While concentrated in the Southeast, Waffle House has spread to 25 states. But Ehmer is quick to point out that they’re not everywhere and don’t intend to be — there are no Waffle Houses in the Northeast, California, or the West Coast. But, he says, “where we are, we’re everywhere.” In Georgia alone there are over 400 Waffle Houses; in Atlanta, over 200.
3. The timing: Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — barring an absolutely extreme weather event, and even then, they are the first business to open their doors. “There’s an urban legend that Waffle Houses don’t have locks on the front doors — that’s not true. They do, because you can’t buy a door without one. So what happens when a hurricane comes through? We have to go buy keys!” But Ehmer says that the 24/7 model creates a unique and fun environment where anything can happen and anyone — celebrities, athletes, musicians, students — might show up at any time.
4. The footprint: Waffle Houses are intentionally small. Rather than building bigger restaurants, they build more. This isn’t solely a financial strategy, though — Ehmer says that the smaller environment encourages interaction between employees and patrons, which allows people to build real relationships inside Waffle Houses.
So, that’s the Waffle House strategy of excellence. But just as, or perhaps more, important, is its people strategy, its method, and tenets for turning team members into a family and managers into leaders? Ehmer also broke down the Waffle House brand of leadership.
Reality 1: It’s all about the Customers and Associates.
This one is self-explanatory, says Ehmer.
Lesson 1: Build strong relationships.
Ehmer describes how a woman went into Waffle House to order coffee three days in a row. The first day, she ordered it with two creamers. The second day, the employee remembered that she liked two creamers. And on the third day, her coffee with two creamers was sitting on the counter waiting for her. That’s the attitude Waffle House fosters, says Ehmer.
Rule 1: Show UP.
After the infamous Atlanta “snowpacalypse” storm, Waffle House was the only place open for food on the Georgia Tech campus, because employees had battled blocked roads and stranded cars to get there. “We have nothing sophisticated about what we do in a storm or hurricane response, we throw chaos at chaos,” said Ehmer. "We show up and we go work — it’s that simple.
Step 1: See Reality and Take action.
“You will solve a problem standing in the middle of the problem so much better than you will by reading about it from afar,” Ehmer explained.
Method 1: Drive Strong Systems.
This goes back to Ehmer’s Georgia Tech engineering education. Strong systems lead to successful outcomes.
Commitment 1: Play for the team.
Ehmer sees the job of a manager as being wholly focused on taking care of your people.
“There’s no place for ego on a team. The higher up on the ladder you go, the more you have to make sure your people are successful.”
Given his leadership philosophy, it’s no surprise that after his Impact talk, Ehmer stuck around to answer questions, meet students and faculty, and share his loyalty to Georgia Tech. Students left the talk with a better sense of the Waffle House as a company, Ehmer as an executive, and the importance of a strong culture to building the success and impact of a brand.
Organized by the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (ILE) at Scheller College, Impact is a weekly series that brings successful leaders from the corporate and nonprofit sectors, as well as innovative entrepreneurs, to campus for an authentic discourse with students and staff. ILE is an interdisciplinary institute that promotes servant leadership and organizational practices that contribute to a more just, caring, and equitable world. The Impact Series is free and open to the entire campus community. It takes place on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Most talks are recorded and available on ILE’s YouTube page.