The “Waffle House Index” can tell you a lot about how quickly things will bounce back following a disaster.
The 24/7 diner chain’s reputation for having excellent preparedness procedures and for staying open during extreme weather — and reopening quickly afterward — was most recently put to the test in September 2019 during Hurricane Dorian.
But impact of the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation was not brought by disaster itself, according to Joe Rodgers, Chief Executive Officer of the Waffle House chain. Rather, government is the storm that must be endured, and Waffle Houses will not fully rebound until restaurant closure orders are lifted.
“American leaders have to lead people through ruinous times, but leaders don’t lead people to ruin,” Rodgers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, warning that many large and small businesses might not survive the period of closures.
Rodgers, the 73-year-old sole board member of the nearly 2,000 restaurant chain based in Norcross, Georgia, said it would be more advantageous to allow business to set their own social distancing policies.
Waffle House currently offering a take-out option in areas where dine-in has been restricted. The chain has one drive-thru, located outside Stone Mountain, Georgia.
The Waffle House Index, which has become an informal metric used by FEMA employees to determine the breadth of a disaster, has three levels. Each level is based on the extent of operations and service at the restaurant following a storm, including:
- GREEN: full menu – restaurant has power and damage is limited or no damage at all.
- YELLOW: limited menu – no power or only power from a generator, or food supplies may be low.
- RED: the restaurant is closed – indicating severe damage or severe flooding.
So far the condition is Green in most Waffle Houses, though service is restricted to take-out and many staff may find their hours significantly cut or eliminated.
The index has its origins with former FEMA agency director Craig Fugate, who famously said following the 2011 Joplin tornado, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad.”
Following the Joplin tornado, two Waffle House restaurants in the city remained open.
But during COVID-19? So far at least one Waffle House is closed, and probably more in the days ahead. Near Atlanta, a Waffle House employee was quarantined after testing positive.
Rogers told the AJC the “doom and gloom” talk from the White House is not doing his business any favors, but praised Trump’s competency. “Any leader in the world that was dealt this hand might not have played it any better, but we have to play it better going forward,” he said.
Up to 40 percent of businesses affected by a natural or man-made disaster never reopen, according to the Insurance Information Institute.