Signage is posted on the inside windown of a Waffle House restaurant, near Kennesaw State, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Georgia. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

There exists in emergency response industry circles something called the “Waffle House Index.” It’s a measurement of how the greasy-spoon breakfast chain is faring in an emergency situation. If the local Waffle House is open and serving a full menu, the index is green; open with a limited menu: yellow; closed: red.

And the Waffle House Index almost never hits red.

Well, now it has. More than 400 of the company’s 1,992 locations are closed because of the novel coronavirus. Public-health orders forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people in some jurisdictions have made it next to impossible for restaurants to operate. Sales are down 70 percent nationwide, Waffle House said in a statement to The Washington Post.

“Hour by hour, Waffle House’s reality is changing,” the company said.

For the first time, the index is being used to measure the impact of a non-weather-related event.

“This week, we posted information on the number of Waffle House closures related to COVID-19. We referred to the index as a way to help people understand how big of an impact this virus has had on the restaurant industry,” Waffle House’s statement continued.

“The reference to ‘code red’ also highlights the tremendous impacts that are being felt by many of our associates and their families. With so few customers visiting our restaurants, we are rapidly losing the ability to offer enough work hours for our associates to earn money needed to live their lives and pay their bills,” it said.

That means things must really be bad because Waffle House is one of the companies disaster-response officials look to as a success story.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency considers Waffle House – yes, Waffle House, the restaurants whose signs notoriously always seem to have a few lightbulbs out – a business with a model risk-management plan. Supply chains are shored up. Workers are ready to go. Home Depot and Walmart have similar reputations.

“They know immediately which stores are going to be affected, and they call their employees to know who can show up and who cannot,” Panos Kouvelis, director of the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis, told occupational health and safety magazine EHS Today in 2011. “They have temporary warehouses where they can store food, and most importantly, they know they can operate without a full menu. This is a great example of a company that has learned from the past and developed an excellent emergency plan.”

And thus was born the index, which former FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate consulted regularly. In the past, it has been used during responses to natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. For example, when a powerful tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, killing 158 people and injuring more than 1,000 others, the local Waffle House remained open. The Waffle House Index remained green.

But this is the kind of crisis that’s not restricted to certain towns or states or even regions. Waffle House’s hardest-hit locations are along the Gulf Coast and in the Midwest, the company said. Most of the restaurants in Florida are still open, though, as are most of the 188 locations around Atlanta.

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