Thomas Francis Forkner Sr., who jumped from selling real estate to the restaurant business when he co-founded Waffle House in the 1950s, has died less than two months after the death of his business partner who recruited him to help launch the famous Southern diner chain.
Waffle House said in a statement that Forkner died Wednesday at age 98. He grew up in DeKalb County just outside Atlanta, the company said, and returned there to sell real estate after serving as an Army intelligence officer during World War II.
Forkner sold a house to his neighbor, Joe Rogers Sr., who worked for the Toddle House restaurant chain. Rogers persuaded Forkner to join him in starting a restaurant of their own. They opened the first 24-hour Waffle House in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates on Labor Day in 1955.
They opened a second location two years later, and they kept building the business over the next two decades. Under Forkner and Rogers, the Waffle House chain grew to 400 restaurants by the time they sold the business in the late 1970s.
Rogers died March 3, just seven weeks before Forkner. The company said Forkner's wife of 71 years, Martha Forkner, died March 4.
The Atlanta-based company now has more than 1,500 locations. Forkner was known to drop by the company headquarters regularly, up until a few weeks before his death. He would often drive there to have lunch with new manager trainees, said Waffle House Chairman Joe Rogers Jr., whose father started the company with Forkner.
"Tom and my father had a handshake deal, and their partnership and friendship continued for more than 60 years," Joe Rogers said in a statement. "Tom and Joe were great partners_Tom working the real estate side of the business and my father operating the restaurants."
Forkner also was an accomplished golfer, the company said, and won enough senior championships to warrant his induction into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.