Waffle House & Disaster Recovery

Waffle House – a restaurant chain that offers “Good Food Fast” at thousands of locations, including several hundred across the hurricane-prone southeastern United States – aims to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The breakfast spot rarely lets natural disasters like Hurricane Florence interrupt operations; in fact, the company and its employees are so dedicated to this around-the-clock availability that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses the Waffle House Index as a way to indicate how severely an area has been impacted by a natural disaster. Yes, the Waffle House Index is real – and there’s a reason it works.

What is the Waffle House Index?

Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator, is credited with creating the Waffle House Index after responding to hurricane damage in 2004 and taking note of how well Waffle House locations endured natural disasters. The index relies on three color-coded levels: green, yellow, and red.

If the index is at green during a natural disaster, local Waffle House locations are serving a full menu. This means they either have power or are running on a generator.

When the index is at yellow, local Waffle House locations are able to serve a limited menu. This can include breakfast essentials made on a griddle and hot coffee and means the location has access to gas for operating its cooking equipment but might lack other utilities like electricity and running water.

The index’s final level, red, means local Waffle House locations are closed. As Fugate succinctly put it during his 2016 interview with NPR, “If a Waffle House is closed because there’s a disaster, it’s bad.”

According to a September 2017 blog post by FEMA’s digital communications specialist Jessica Stapf, this simple index also helps emergency responders understand how quickly affected areas and their communities are recovering from disasters.

Waffle House Shows Up

The secret to Waffle House’s emergency preparedness isn’t really a secret. It’s an operational aspect of the diner chain’s commitment to being open all day, every day. When it comes to emergency situations like natural disasters, the company doesn’t have to scramble because they’ve already planned ahead to ensure additional supplies and employees are in areas that are expected to be impacted, allowing them to immediately get to work making food and hot coffee for displaced residents and first responders.

Walt Ehmer, president and CEO of Waffle House, said as much in a FEMA blog post titled, “The Waffle House Plan – Show Up.” That’s a creed Ehmer seems to take seriously, as he was recently on the ground in Wilmington, N.C., after Hurricane Florence, sporting his own Waffle House uniform.

In that same blog post, Ehmer shared his advice for owners and operators hoping to emulate the company’s disaster response: “You need to plan ahead and then when the emergency occurs, be ready to be flexible and address the most important issues in front of you. And over time, it simply becomes part of your company’s or home’s culture.”

Waffling the Storm

The company’s social media accounts also post updates during natural disasters. Prior to Hurricane Florence’s landfall, Waffle House accounts shared an image of the “Waffle House Storm Center,” which showed several employees crowded around a conference table with a multi-screen display tracking news and the hurricane’s movements. A few days later, those accounts shared an image of a “jump team” from Augusta, Ga., that had traveled to Wilmington to help operate a location in the affected area.

Though the company sometimes catches flack on social media for remaining open during hurricanes, employees and fans of the dining chain often respond to those comments with ones of support for the restaurant. Those who do are quick to point out that in areas impacted by hurricanes – which can lead to structural damage, power outages, flooding, and other dangerous situations – there may not be anywhere else for displaced residents and first responders to find nearby shelter or a hot meal. For people in those areas, an open Waffle House is a beacon of comfort and safety.

Read our previous blog on natural disaster preparations for more information on preparing for emergencies and disasters to protect your business and employees.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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