Hurricane Irma “set the record” for Waffle House closings

The diner is known for being an indicator of how bad a storm can get. The recent hurricane shut down 157 locations.
Waffle House hurricane Irma

Photograph by SeanPavonePhoto via iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

The next time you want a reliable gauge of how well your area will fare during a natural disaster, look no further than your local Waffle House.

Earlier this week, 157 outposts were forced to shut down in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “Before Irma there was [Hurricane] Katrina, where we had to close 107 restaurants for evacuations,” says Waffle House spokesperson Pat Warner. “So, Irma has set the Waffle House record.” Metro Atlanta boasts around 300 of the Waffle House’s 1,900 total locations across 25 states, most of those in the Southeast.

Waffle House has a reputation for, quite literally, weathering the storm. Back in 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Craig Fugate coined the phrase “Waffle House index” as a way to measure just how bad a natural disaster would be. He reportedly told his team to keep driving if they came upon a Waffle House that was open. If the Waffle House was on the generator or a limited menu (which they use during issues like power outages and water boil advisories), then there was a power issue. If the Waffle House was closed, you’d know there was likely serious damage.

While Hurricane Harvey affected only a few dozen Texas-based restaurants, mainly with flooding, Warner says Irma caused 144 of the restaurants in Florida to lose power at some point. When we spoke on September 12, only 14 were still closed, with nine on generators.

What about here in metro Atlanta, where downed trees and power lines from Irma’s winds caused some residents to go without power even into Thursday? “Atlanta was kind of a surprise for us, because a lot of our attention was down in South Georgia and Florida,” Warner says. “Some [in Atlanta] were shut down overnight—I think at one time we had 25 restaurants with power issues.”

“For 62 years now we’ve had restaurants in the Southeast, so typically if there’s a hurricane in the Atlantic basin, we’re going to be impacted by it,” Warner explains. “Hurricane Hugo in Charleston back in the late ’80’s was probably the first big hurricane that we responded to.” Ever since, they’ve fine-tuned procedures and resources for restaurants to open quickly post-storm.

Those resources include a software that takes official models from the National Hurricane Center and plots their paths against restaurant locations. In the event an outpost loses power, rather than closing, they simply offer a limited menu (which sadly doesn’t include waffles, as the waffle irons need electricity) that still makes use of natural-gas grills. Closing completely is a challenge, says Warner, as the restaurants aim to operate 24/7. If a mandatory evacuation is announced, the company enlists what they call “jump teams,” or experienced managers from other states, to assist in keeping locations open as long as is safe. “Right now in Florida we have folks from Louisiana, the Carolinas, and some from Georgia, Tennessee, and Ohio,” says Warner. “We form jump teams to come in help the local operations team get back open so they can focus on their people in their individual restaurants.”

During both Irma and Harvey, the company has helped provide temporary shelter to employees who lost their homes. Warner says that’s indicative of how the WaHo powers that be choose to run their business. “Our CEO was in Orlando before the storm. We have four executive vice presidents down there. Our chairman of the board was down there. We like to have our leadership standing in the restaurants so they can make better decisions instead of staying back here in Atlanta, calling shots—our leadership is different than a lot of companies in that way.”

The company has even been known to dispatch the infamous Waffle House food truck for disaster relief. They once sent a truck to Baton Rouge to serve as a mobile restaurant people could visit when the city’s locations were affected by flooding. During our call, Warner said it may or may not make its way down to Florida.

After each storm, the team sits down to assess their procedures. “If the Waffle House is closed, our associates are not making money, so we feel there is a responsibility to them to get opened quickly after a storm,” Warner says. “Each storm has it’s own personality, and we learn something from each one. The best we can do is be prepared and be ready to roll back in right after.”