No one endures a national state of emergency like the Waffle House. For those who don’t live near the 2,000-plus locations spread out across 25 states, a Waffle House is a restaurant that harnesses the enduring image of the all-night truck stop greasy spoon. The most outstanding thing about the food at a Waffle House is that it’s always available 24-7, rain or hurricane.
But when your local Waffle House is suddenly not open, you know it’s time to head for the hills.
Waffle Houses have a loyal following in the areas where they operate, and it’s not just truckers and the late night, post-drinking crowd. A good slice of Americans would tell you that Waffle House produces the kind of food they love.
The restaurant chain is so reliable during disasters that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, actually closely monitors the activities of local Waffle House restaurants to prepare for potential economic damage and make risk-management decisions. They call it the “Waffle House Index,” and it’s not just a measure of the danger of a storm, it’s a barometer for economic recovery.
The Waffle House Index has three levels of severity. Green means a Waffle House is open and serving a full menu, yellow means the menu is limited to just a few options, and red indicates the Waffle House was forced to close, its crew has skipped town, and you probably should, too.
The reason is that Waffle House operates a huge number of stores in the American South and Southeast. Their properties and supply chain are always vulnerable to extreme weather conditions faced on the U.S. coasts. In the event of an emergency, the chain is able to quickly inform employees and move supplies to secure warehouses. Once the crisis has passed, the Waffle House is usually the first business open in the aftermath.
It’s not only in the public’s (and FEMA’s) best interest to monitor dangerous storms. For Waffle House, who maintains a storm watch center, it keeps the company’s product and supply chain intact and ready to re-open for business. Food, after all, is not a product that stands the test of time. The company has generators, supplies, and staff ready to go as soon as the all clear is given.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, it wasn’t just fry cooks and waitresses that flocked back to North Carolina after the storm. Waffle House sent in construction teams and IT personnel, all lead by the company’s CEO. The supply staging strategy used by Waffle House is the same method used by the U.S. Military and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in case of a national crisis or theater-level operation.
Waffle House Restaurant torn apart by Hurricane Katrina on the Biloxi, Mississippi, coast.
(Library of Congress)
While the Waffle House Index is a decent risk indicator, it’s not always 100-percent perfect. Waffle Houses closed in the wakes of Hurricanes Katrina, Matthew, and Harvey. The Waffle House in Joplin, Mo. remained open during the devastating tornado that hit the town in 2011. The Waffle House survived, but much of the rest of the town did not.