Southerners have long relied on the Waffle House Index to understand the severity of a natural disaster. But the coronavirus pandemic has broken the metric with the breakfast chain announcing the closure of a quarter of its restaurants on Wednesday.
The crisis has interrupted Richard Bennett’s daily ritual that includes stopping off at the Waffle House on U.S. 98 in Daphne to order breakfast, socialize with four-to-five other regulars and “get brought down to Earth” by the waitresses.
“It’s just a place where you can come to in the middle of the night or if you get irritable,” said Bennett, 71, of Spanish Fort, who stopped off at the restaurant to buy a cup of coffee and say “hello” to the wait staff on the same day that the Georgia-based company announced it was closing 365 restaurants as the coronavirus crisis ravages the restaurant industry.
The iconic Southern chain’s closures also signify something else about a pandemic: The famed “Waffle House Index” that has long measured the impact of weather events, could be rendered useless as a company that prides itself on never closing restaurants is forced to shut down during a public health crisis.
“Measuring the Waffle House Index in a pandemic is like counting touchdowns in baseball,” said Lawrence Powell, director and senior research professional at the Alabama Center of Insurance Information and Research at the University of Alabama. “In our current situation, an open Waffle House is the opposite of resilient.”
The famed Index or “Matrix” was created in 2011, by then-Federal Emergency Management Administration administrator and former Florida state EMA director Craig Fugate.
The index’s formula is simple in that it utilizes three measures of storm damage based on stop light colors: green means the restaurant is serving a full menu and indicates utilities are functioning and damage is limited, yellow means the restaurants is serving a limited menu and that electricity might be supplied through a generator or food supplies are low and a red means the restaurant is closed and severe damage is nearby.
The company, which did not respond to a request for comment, told AL.com in 2015 that the plan is carried out through several measures. Chief among them is formulating a crisis management team that is hunkered down in the company’s Atlanta headquarters while executive vice-presidents travel to affected areas to begin managing emergency responses.
The restaurants’ menu is often refined after a weather event. For instance, if Waffle House is operating a limited menu, “quick” and “easier to cook” food items – such as ice and water – will be shipped the restaurant. Quicker-to-cook items such as sausages will be served, while other food items like bacon are not.
The company’s emergency response plan has been in place since Hurricane Hugo struck the Southeast in 1989, and for years the company has developed a reputation for being open and having associates smothering and chunking hash browns while other chains are dark.
“Their planning process and how they can deal with (a bad weather) event is quite exemplary,” said Panos Kouvelis, director of the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis. “That’s the story we talk about with the Waffle House Index is that if the Waffle House is open, it can’t be that bad. If they operate a partial menu, it’s yellow and if it’s closed, then it’s bad. But those are used with weather disasters.”
Kouvelis and Powell both say they are unsure how the Index can be utilized during the pandemic.
But Fugate, who led FEMA during the Obama Administration from 2009-2017, has revised the matrix for the COVID19 pandemic:
- Green means the Waffle House is open for dining: “Wash your hands, no handshakes.”
- Yellow is for takeout only
- Red is closed.
“Like most other things, pandemics will result in their own measures,” Fugate said to AL.com.
Kouvelis said the current pandemic renders Waffle House in a difficult situation and dependent on the government. He said there is “nothing the Waffle House can do.”
“We are all trying to find a way to stop this spread of the virus and my assumption is the government is doing the right thing and state governments are doing the right things with social distancing and (prohibiting) dining and (encouraging) take out,” said Kouvelis.
He said that once restaurants reopen following the pandemic – and even if social distancing requirements remain in effect – Waffle House should be able to manage.
“It’s very efficient in how they run their businesses and their (restaurant) layout,” said Kouvelis. “They could enforce this kind of social distancing in the different booths and the waitresses can move and avoid interactions.
And the reopening of their dining rooms would also be therapeutic, he said.
“I think people will be really relieved to see Waffle House operating 24/7 again,” said Kouvelis. “Many of us would love to see that happen.”
That includes Bennett.
“I really miss the (waitresses) here,” he said.
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