Have You Heard About the Waffle House Index?

The bright yellow Waffle House sign is a welcome site for those getting out of danger's way — and those who are trying to help. (Photo: Rob Wilson/Shutterstock)

I'd never heard of the Waffle House Index until a few years ago. It's a phrase coined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which uses the Waffle House chain as an informal indication of which areas have been hardest hit by a disaster.

There are three colors on the index — green (open), yellow (open but limited menu) and red (closed).

It's a simple coding system that's a good indicator of the situation in the area. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate famously said after the EF5-rated tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011: "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad. That's where you go to work."

When a Waffle House closes, it's a code red on the index. The longer it takes for a location to reopen is a sign of just how powerful a disaster is.

Traditionally, the index has been used during natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, but in 2020, the new coronavirus presented a new kind of disaster. On March 18, all Waffle Houses were open, at least for to-go orders. By March 25, more than 400 restaurants had closed.

Almost always open for business

Georgia-based Waffle House has made it a policy to be open for emergency workers and customers to get food when there's nowhere else to turn. When Waffle House is open during a disaster, it serves a limited menu typically due to limited power and water, which is a code yellow.

Company managers created a post-disaster business strategy after Hurricane Katrina destroyed seven of its restaurants and temporarily shut down 100 others. (For comparison, 107 Waffle Houses closed for that disaster. Until COVID-19, Hurricane Irma had the most closures, with 157, according to Atlanta magazine.)

The company also decided to beef up its crisis-management process. Senior executives developed a manual for how to open after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts.

They even have a "storm center" where they can assess the status of Waffle Houses during a disaster.

They have a specific plan for hurricanes that "explains how to reopen a restaurant and what to serve if there is gas but no electricity, or a generator but no ice. An important element is limiting the menu so the company's supply chain can focus on keeping certain items stocked and chilled or frozen."

These efforts certainly cost the company more than whatever profits are made from being open during the emergency, but the company says the idea is "more about marketing and building goodwill than profits."

I found this story so interesting; it has challenged some of my theories about fast-food restaurants and how and when I'll spend money on them. This is one chain that's focusing on a laudable ideal.

Think about it: It would be more profitable for a Waffle House in a disaster-hit area with no power to simply close its doors until conditions were favorable. Management has decided to put people over profit in this case, and that's something worth applauding.