The Wall Street Journal and the Waffle House

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific ahed today on the Waffle House and how the company goes all out during natural disasters to stay open.

The company, which stays open 24 hours a day 365 days a year, doesn’t like being shut down, even when a tornado or hurricane has ripped through. The Journal reports that in the aftermath of Katrina, which shut down a hundred of its 1,600 restaurants and destroyed seven of them, Waffle House set up an aggressive plan to respond to emergencies. Now it’s mentioned in the same breath as giants like Walmart and Home Depot for its disaster-preparedness plan, which includes these measures:

Senior executives developed a manual for opening after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts.

This is great detail on the ground in North Carolina last week:

Power went off at the Waffle House just off Interstate 95 in Weldon on Saturday evening as Irene churned through. The restaurant kept serving until it got too dark for the grill cook to see when the food was cooked, then it shut down.

It reopened the next day at dawn. The overhead lights and walk-in freezer weren’t working, but the gas grill was. The cooks boiled water on the grill, then poured it through the coffee machine, over beans ground before the power went out. The district manager, Chris Barnes, handed employees copies of an emergency grill-only menu. The fare included ham-and-egg sandwiches for $3.15 and quarter-pound hamburgers for $2.70. Servers nudged customers to order sausage instead of bacon, because four sausage patties fit on the grill for every two slices of bacon.

And this a great lede:

When a hurricane makes landfall, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on a couple of metrics to assess its destructive power.

First, there is the well-known Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Then there is what he calls the “Waffle House Index.”

Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.

“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

If I have a hesitation with this piece it’s with its assertion that what Waffle House is doing is part of some marketing strategy. It’s unclear why the paper says marketers are behind it—there’s certainly no sourcing or reporting here that would show that. Might its disaster response is just a somewhat old-fashioned and noncynical way of doing well by doing good? It hardly seems like Waffle House has a marketing team driving many of its decisions.

And I could have done without this clueless-yankee “what is Waffle House?” graph:

Waffle House, a privately held company based in suburban Atlanta, may be best known as a roadside stop for retirees driving south or the place where musician Kid Rock got into a brawl after a 2007 concert.

But it’s a very good story all the same.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,