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FOOD

How Floridians truly knew Hurricane Ian would be serious: Waffle House was closed

The restaurant chain is so well prepared for disasters, even FEMA has used it as a metric.

Waffle House is widely recognized for staying open through hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, and every other imaginable disaster.Elijah Nouvelage/Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/B

Those living in the path of Hurricane Ian might have been worried about the storm already. But when Waffle House branches began to close, there was no doubt it was time to take the situation seriously.

The Atlanta-based restaurant chain has almost 2,000 restaurants throughout 25 states, with a concentration in the Southeast. They are always open: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Although New Englanders are largely ignorant about the Waffle House experience, for many Americans, it is a way of life.

“It is all about Southern hospitality,” says Njeri Boss, vice president of public relations. “It’s a beacon for many weary road travelers, or business folks wanting to eat quickly or stay discussing business decisions. High school students come after the game. Parents bring young ones to get a bite to eat inexpensively. There’s something for everyone. You can have a multimillionaire seated next to someone just starting out. They might strike up a conversation, who knows.”

The atmosphere is casual, diner-like. The kitchen is out in the open, so customers can watch their food being prepared. There are waffles, of course, in plain, pecan, chocolate chip, and peanut butter chip. But the place might just as well be called Hash Brown House for where diners’ hearts really lie. (Not that I don’t love our healthy salad spots, but a build-your-own hash brown bowl concept wouldn’t be exactly unwelcome in these parts.) Eggs, chicken sandwiches, and Texas cheesesteak melts are also popular menu items. So ... it’s not just, like, the waffle version of an IHOP?

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“Those are fighting words, ma’am,” Boss says politely yet firmly. “Friends do not let friends eat pancakes.”

Waffle House is serious business. In addition to moving obscene quantities of food (272 million eggs, 153 million hash brown orders, and 124 million waffles annually), it offers employees benefits that are rare in the industry: paid maternity leave for both management and hourly workers, paid time off, healthcare (including mental health benefits), stock in the company. And it takes seriously its 24/7/365 commitment. In addition to being known for its super-tasty and customizable menu, Waffle House is widely recognized for staying open through hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, and every other imaginable disaster (it is even rumored to have a protocol in place in case of nuclear emergency).

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Basically, says Boss, if it’s safe to be open, Waffle House will be open. If it’s not, it will reopen as soon as possible. Here’s how it works:

“We have a crisis response center that gets opened, particularly during hurricane season. We track a storm all the way until it makes landfall, constantly working with local officials, with local leadership in the field to help direct the plan. We’ve been doing this for several decades now, and we’ve learned a lot over the years. There’s a storm playbook that every restaurant has, to know what to do in case of certain situations or emergencies. If it wasn’t safe to be in the restaurant during the actual passing over of a hurricane, once it has moved on, we go in, assess the damage, and see what’s needed to get up and running. There are construction folks who are part of that on-the-ground response team, folks who are directing gas tankers, ladder trucks, vendors of food to restaurants: all those things are coordinated from the corporate office, from the crisis response team to the field and vice versa. This is a significant operation.”

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The storm playbook doesn’t just cover hurricanes but every kind of storm. Staff is prepared ahead of time, so they know what to do, including how to take care of their own families and homes, Boss says. If they need to bring in workers from other markets, they will. If the power is down, they figure out what they can provide until it is restored, using gas grills and a menu generated for emergency situations. If there’s no water, they figure out how to get it, while bringing in portable toilets.

“The three most important things are people, power, and food,” Boss says.

This level of disaster preparedness led to what is called the “Waffle House Index,” a term coined not by Waffle House itself, nor by a comedian or TikTok personality, but by none other than former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate.

“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?,” Fugate has said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

@soundguynick

the waffle house index is my favorite disaster mitigation tool #hurricaneian #wafflehouse #weirdflorida #polkcounty

♬ original sound - sound guy nick

The informal index is color-coded (and not to be confused with our local French Toast Alert System). Green means Waffle House is offering its full menu. The restaurant has power, and damage is negligible. Yellow means a limited menu is being offered. Power and food supply may be compromised. And Red is high alert: Waffle House is closed, and the situation is dire.

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In 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, Mo., killing about 150 people, injuring more than 1,000, and causing nearly $3 billion in damages. Both local Waffle House branches stayed open, according to The Joplin Globe (no relation).

Hurricane Katrina was Waffle House’s most challenging storm to date: It closed 107 units in Louisiana. Some took years to reopen, while others never returned.

At the height of Hurricane Ian, 40 Waffle House restaurants closed. By Sept. 30, Boss says, 33 of those were already back up and running. As of yesterday, just two remained closed, one in Port Charlotte and one in Punta Gorda.

Says Boss: “We are usually the first to reopen, to be there for the community. Employees live and work in our communities, and we have a commitment to them. Bills don’t stop just because a hurricane came to town. And we want to be a beacon of hope so the community as a whole knows it will get through this.”


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.