Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Waffles and FedEx: An American tale

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
August 11, 2013 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
An unusual item Bob Greene noticed on the Waffle House menu led him to a classic American success story
An unusual item Bob Greene noticed on the Waffle House menu led him to a classic American success story
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene wondered why Waffle House menu sold Toddle House omelets
  • Toddle House eateries were a staple of his youth
  • Toddle House was the root of a remarkable father-son success story
  • The son of Toddle House's founder, grew up to succeed in a different venture

Editor's note: Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Occasionally, at odd hours, you may find that you have a Waffle House all to yourself.

This allows for silent contemplation.

There is one notation on the ubiquitous restaurants' familiar laminated, double-sided menus that has long intrigued me. This summer I finally decided to look into why that notation is there, and the answer led, in a roundabout way, to an unexpected and beguiling tale of American business, and of fathers and sons.

You really do learn something new every day.

The omelets on all those Waffle House menus are not described as mere omelets. They are designated as "Toddle House omelets."

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

The Toddle Houses -- they have been out of business for decades -- were a cherished institution in the middle of the 20th century. I must have eaten hundreds of Toddle House meals as a boy and young man. They were open 24 hours a day, and were bare-bones. A counter and 10 stools. No booths. No tables. A place you could depend on.

I never quite understood how those original Toddle Houses could make any money with only 10 customers at a time, but they were heartland perfection (if not perfect for one's heart). Cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, hash browns made on the grill right in front of you, breakfast round the clock, and the most mouthwatering chocolate icebox pie and banana cream pie imaginable. I can taste those pies right now, and it's been more than 40 years.

The chain was based in Memphis, and, as mid-South historian Vance Lauderdale has written, "Everything was gleaming steel or white tile, and crammed into the tiny space were fryers and ovens and broilers and toasters and -- well, just about everything needed to prepare anything from a cup of coffee to a steak dinner."

I thought the Toddle Houses had vanished from everywhere but my dreams -- yet they live on, on every Waffle House menu. And, because there are more than 1,600 Waffle Houses in the United States, there are a whole lot of Waffle House menus.

To find out the reason for all of this, I got in touch with Waffle House headquarters, in Norcross, Georgia. I was told that there is no financial connection between Waffle House and the old Toddle House. But one of Waffle House's co-founders, Joe Rogers Sr., got his start as a Toddle House employee, and it was he who insisted on the Toddle House label on the omelets, as a fond and wistful homage to those lost little diners.

Now. . . here's where the saga gets cool.

'Waffle House Index' charts hurricanes

I delved into Toddle House history. It turns out that the guy who built the Toddle Houses from nothing into a mid-century middle-American treasure was a fellow named Fred Smith. He had owned a bus company, had sold it, and had devoted his business acumen to the Toddle Houses. He died in the 1940s, leaving a 4-year-old son fatherless.

The boy, also named Fred, went to college, joined the Marines, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, then came home and, like his dad had done, decided to start a company. It was based on an idea he had dreamed up while in school. It had nothing to do with the restaurant business.

It was a little firm called Federal Express.

How's that for a father-and-son success story? Toddle House and FedEx, sharing a common bloodline. It's one thing for a dad to teach his son the ropes in a family business, and hand it to him. And history is full of dads and their sons who have succeeded in the same field. John and John Quincy Adams, and George H.W. and George W. Bush, became presidents of the United States. Archie Manning and his sons Peyton and Eli all became National Football League quarterbacks. Bobby Hull and his son Brett are both hockey hall-of-famers. Kirk Douglas was a Hollywood leading man, and so is his son, Michael.

But those sons followed their fathers into the same job.

The first Fred Smith, though, was long dead by the time the second Fred Smith determined that he wanted to go into business. There must be something genetic about the creative business urge (or something in the Memphis water); the first Fred wasn't around to teach the second Fred how to do it, yet the Smiths built two completely different kinds of companies that on a national scale successfully fulfilled completely different consumer needs.

And I just realized something:

Nine years ago, when a lifelong friend was dying of cancer and we who grew up with him and loved him were gathering to bid him farewell, we tried to think up a gift that would mean something special to him.

I found, online, an antique shop in the South that had on hand an old dinner plate from a Toddle House (the slogan of the restaurants, modest yet confident, was: "Good as the Best." The slogan was baked into every plate).

We'd had so many Toddle House meals together, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on those stools at the counter. We knew what the gift would represent to him. We were all going to sign the plate for our friend, so he could keep it on a shelf near his bed.

But time was short. We didn't have the luxury of waiting. So I asked the antique shop owners if there was a way they could get it to us quickly.

There was.

They sent it FedEx.

It arrived the next day, for us to sign and present to him. After he passed away, his wife did me the kindness of giving me the sturdy old Toddle House plate, complete with all of our signatures on it -- and his. I'm looking at it as I type these words.

I realize only now that it was the first Fred Smith's prized product, brought safely to us by his son.

What a country. Sometimes you have to just smile and shake your head.

(Now, if there was only some way for FedEx to deliver a slice of that long-gone Toddle House banana cream pie. . . .)

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT