Is Waffle House a fast food

Waffle House

In the eye of the storm

When hurricanes devastate the US, the White House calls a fast food chain to find out how bad it really is. Because nobody knows such events as well as the Waffle House, known for its cheap breakfast.

Text: Christoph Koch
Graphics: Carte Blanche Design Studio

The index

When Charley, a Category 4 hurricane struck the southwest coast of Florida in August 2004, tens of thousands of people were left homeless and $ 15 billion in property damage across the United States. Craig Fugate, then head of the Florida Civil Protection Agency, worked day and night with his team to get an overview of the extent of the devastation and to coordinate the aid. “It was five in the morning and we were driving on Interstate Highway 75. Everything was devastated, nothing was open,” he says. “Only in front of a waffle house was there a queue of people.” Although the power had also failed in the fast-food restaurant, Fugate and his helpers were given a replacement menu. "It was nothing more than a photocopied list of coffee, eggs, and a few other non-perishable items to make on their gas stoves."

The following day in another city the same picture: There was no light anywhere, but the Waffle House had customers. So far, Fugate's agency had primarily worked with the reported number of power outages during hurricanes to determine which communities were hardest hit. But this indicator was never “very helpful”, according to Fugate. Now he and two of his employees had a new idea. They developed a traffic light system: green means a fully functional waffle house, yellow means a restricted menu, red means a closed one. “If it is green, my people can continue driving. If they are yellow, they have to see what has happened in the area. And when a waffle house closes, it's really bad. High time to send the search and rescue teams to this area. "

The "Waffle House Index", as it has been called since then, is an unofficial disaster barometer. Fugate continued to use it when Barack Obama appointed him chief of the federal civil protection agency (FEMA) in 2009. And when Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated the states of Texas and Florida this summer, the White House called the company headquarters of the fast-food chain to find out which of the branches, especially in the storm-ravaged south, were closed. “We're honored to have the Waffle House Index,” said Will Mizell, chief human resources officer, as he toured the company in Norcross, a city north of Atlanta, Georgia. “But it also means that we have to live up to this responsibility.” Around 250 employees work in the inconspicuous, flat office building in the north of the city. In the more than 1,800 branches of the chain, which stretch from Texas along the Gulf Coast up to Pennsylvania, a total of around 40,000 employees grill or take orders.

The chain was founded (current turnover: estimated 1.5 billion US dollars) in 1955 by friends Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner. From the beginning it was part of the concept that every branch is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It's worth it: December 25th is the day with the highest turnover every year. "When you see a Waffle House, you can be sure that it is open" - this requirement of founder Tom Forkner should also be adhered to when natural disasters bring public life to a standstill. Or even: just then.

How does the chain manage to keep its shops open when everyone else surrenders to the forces of nature?

Ten days before the storm

The first company employee to hear of an approaching storm is Matt Stark. He actually works in goods purchasing, but rarely gets this job because there are more and more violent storms. Stark is keeping an eye on the weather over the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic where the hurricanes form. He observes minor storms and tracks them using software called Hurrtrack. "The technology and the forecasting methods are getting better all the time," he says. "The development of a storm can now be seen about two weeks in advance." However, only the forecast for the next ten days is reasonably precise.

So ten days before a hurricane could hit land, Stark starts sending emails to his colleagues, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Among other things, it states which wind strengths are to be feared and which restaurants are likely to be affected by the storm. There were 14 for Hurricane Harvey and 250 for Irma. Stark does not know any more about the storms than official bodies or the weather channel on television. But his company spares no effort in preparing for them - and later on is one of the first to see how they have made an impact. Over the next few days, Stark kept everyone up to date: some storms were losing strength, others were turning and did not reach the mainland.

If Stark announces that it is getting serious, his colleagues from the purchasing department contact the suppliers and warn them that the restaurants concerned may need larger quantities. "At first we only had one replacement menu, now we have several - depending on whether the restaurant has to get by without electricity, gas or water," says Purchasing Manager Monty Baldwin. “But we also take care of seemingly trivial things: For example, emptying all of the dumpsters before the storm.” Because when everyone else closes, the sales of a waffle house restaurant increase exorbitantly - but with it the amount Rubbish. In addition, in extreme cases it can take weeks before the bins are emptied again.

While the headquarters in Norcross checks supply chains, the branch managers on site go through the various processes with the employees. They check the necessary material, from the protective panels, which are installed in front of the windows in the event of a storm, to the flashlight batteries and up to exactly 36 candles to be kept in stock. Make sure that the private houses of the employees are storm-proof, update phone numbers and find out who has relatives in need of care at home or who is a single parent, i.e. who needs special help in the event of a disaster.

Two days before the storm

Dave Rickell is based at 2126 Waffle House (each store is numbered based on when it opened) in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Located about half an hour from headquarters, it's one of more than 680 restaurants that Rickell is executive vice president of. He has been in the company since 1997, reporting directly to the chairman of the board - and still pulls into the eye of the storm with a sleeping bag and air mattress. "Jump Teams" are the names of the two to five-person units that the company sends from restaurants in safe locations to the disaster area. “Our jump teams almost always consist of executives,” says Rickell. "We cannot ask our employees to come to work despite a storm and hide ourselves at the same time." The managing director Walt Ehmer and the chairman of the board and son of the founder Joe Rogers junior are also regularly in the affected restaurants during hurricanes.

The teams ideally arrive at the scene two days before the storm. Participation is voluntary, but more employees regularly register than there are places. The emergency workers stay for around five days, then they are changed. 102 employees from nine states were on duty during Hurricane Irma, and 79 from ten different states at Harvey. Rickell first spent six days this year in Hurricane Harvey-flooded Beaumont, Texas. Then he spent a week checking the restaurants in his home market in Georgia and Alabama before traveling to Florida where Irma was raging as part of a new jump team.

In Norcross, the large conference room in Norcross is now being converted into a “War Room”: Large monitors show the current position of the storm, wind speeds and the position and status of the individual restaurants. From there, rental cars and hotel rooms are also organized for the helpers on site. It's not that easy, because, according to Rickell: "Digital reservation systems fail or the hotels are fully booked because everything had to be evacuated a few kilometers south."

The teams usually go to where the expected damage is greatest. Generators are kept ready just outside the hurricane area. After the storm has passed, they should be available as soon as possible to restaurants in which the power has failed. Electricians and other tradespeople are on call to make repairs. Also on the houses of employees who can then come to work instead of having to worry about their leaky roof. If the petrol threatens to run out, the company parks tanker trucks just outside the storm area in order to have fuel quickly if necessary has driven such a tanker.

Restaurants that are located where the storm will rage receive additional cash. On the one hand, in the event that the electronic card payment fails. On the other hand, to be able to pay employees in cash so that they do not have to rely on banks or ATMs. Because they often don't work either.

During the storm

A blue ring binder, the so-called Storm Playbook, belongs to the inventory of every branch. In this detailed schedule, employees will find everything they need to know in the event of a disaster: from important telephone numbers for the local authorities to advice on food hygiene and the procedure for closing a restaurant in which the stovetops would otherwise glow 24 hours a day. "That sounds banal, but you have to explain it," says Will Mizell. "Some have worked for us for 20 years and have never closed a restaurant."

The rumor that the restaurants have no door locks because of their continuous opening times persists, but is a myth: “We often couldn't find the keys when we had to close a restaurant,” says Mizell. "But we recently found the solution, all restaurants are now using the same key that fits in all locks." The company naturally obeyed the official evacuations.

The blue folder also contains various scenarios - from power outages to water shortages - that are played through and listed in minute detail. If, for example, the tap water is dirty, the guests only get beverage cans instead of cola from the dispenser. In the event of a power failure, the temperatures in the refrigerator compartment must be checked every hour and food that is too high must be thrown away. When the water is completely shut off, paper plates and mobile toilets are used - the latter, like the generators, are available at a safe distance.

But no matter how good the planning may be, chaos begins with the hurricane. "Every storm is different," says Vecus Miller. “Irma, for example, has changed direction several times. That made it very difficult to know exactly which locations would be affected. ”Miller, who grew up in the New York Bronx, started as a trainee at Waffle House in 2002. He later took over his own restaurant. He is now responsible for more than 240 branches. Like Dave Rickell, he is there during almost every storm. "Those are 20-hour days when I often just help refill the shelves at the grill, mop the floor, or take out the trash," says Miller. “When hardly anyone else is open, the queue sometimes extends around the entire restaurant.” Inside, the waitresses then move the jukebox aside, otherwise an integral part of every branch - so that the guests can charge their phones. “In an emergency like this, it's almost as important as a warm meal,” says Miller.

After the storm

From the tank trucks to the generators to additional workers in the jump teams, the company spends a lot of money on its fight against storm-related closings. How much it is exactly cannot be found out. “We don't give out numbers. But it is significantly more than we take in during this time, ”says Pat Warner. "We are not listed on the stock exchange, but a family business - so we can make decisions that may not seem like a good investment at first glance."

But in the long run it seems to be paying off. The chain does not spend any money on commercials or advertisements and, unlike some ailing competitors, is still growing steadily - two percent of all American eggs now end up on a waffle house plate. “People remember where they got something to eat first after a hurricane,” says Warner. "And this sympathy often extends for years after the actual catastrophe and binds people emotionally to us."

The effort that the company makes can also be seen as a successful measure for image building and customer loyalty. The disaster relief activist Craig Fugate observes that other companies are following Waffle House as an example: “Companies like Wal-Mart or the home improvement chain Home Depot are now preparing better for disasters and are trying to reopen their stores as soon as possible. Also because they know that people thank them with extreme loyalty. "

After every storm, when all the restaurants in the Waffle House index are back to green, Mizell and the other responsible parties sit down together. Then they discuss what went well and what went wrong, draw conclusions and revise the Storm Playbook. “For example, with Hurricane Matthew last year, we learned that we needed more small generators,” says Will Mizell. "They can't supply an entire restaurant with electricity, but they are easy to transport and are sufficient to ensure cooling." That meant that significantly less food had to be disposed of during the storms at the time. The decision to send jump teams out two days before the hurricane was also agreed at such a meeting.

“After the storm is before the storm,” says Rickell. “Anyone who, like us, operates primarily in the southern United States does not wonder whether a storm will catch them. But only when the time comes. "---