One of the most interesting post-Irene stories that I read this week was about something called the “Waffle House Index.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) actually looks to the Waffle House chain of restaurants as an indication of which areas in the mid-Atlantic and South were hardest hit by a disaster.


It may sound silly, but FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says that if the Waffle House in a disaster-hit area is closed, “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

The Waffle House has made it a policy to be open for emergency workers and customers to get food when there’s nowhere else to turn. Management created a post-disaster business strategy after Hurricane Katrina destroyed seven of its restaurants and temporarily shut down 100 others.

The company decided to beef up its crisis-management processes. 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.

They have a specific plan for hurricanes that “explains how to reopen a restaurant and what to serve if there is gas but no electricity, or a generator but no ice. An important element is limiting the menu so the company's supply chain can focus on keeping certain items stocked and chilled or frozen.”

These efforts certainly cost the company more than the profits made from being open during the emergency, but the company says it “more about marketing and building goodwill than profits.”

I’ve found this story so interesting because of the way it has challenged my “all fast-food restaurants that aren’t trying to be sustainable will never get my money” stance. This is one chain that may not focus on a sustainable food supply, but it’s focusing on other things that are laudable.

It would be more profitable for a Waffle House in a disaster-hit area that has no power to close its doors until all conditions were favorable. Management has decided to put people over profit in this case, and that is something worth applauding.

On our way to vacation in Virginia last month, we passed several Waffle House signs on the highway that I ignored. Perhaps next time I’m traveling, I’ll consider the chain a vacation stop option.  

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.