Until a few years ago, I'd never heard of the Waffle House Index. It's a phrase coined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which uses the Waffle House chain as an informal indication of which areas have been hardest hit by a natural disaster. There are three colors on the index — green, yellow and red.

It may sound silly, but it makes sense. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate famously said after the 2011 Joplin tornado: "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work."

In October 2018, Waffle House in Panama City, Florida actually closed in preparation of Hurricane Michael slamming into the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 storm. When a Waffle House closes, it's a code red on the index. The longer it takes for a location to reopen is a sign of just how powerful a storm is.

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. When Waffle House is open during a natural disaster it serves a limited menu typically due to limited power and water, which is a code yellow.

Company managers created a post-disaster business strategy after Hurricane Katrina destroyed seven of its restaurants and temporarily shut down 100 others.

The company also decided to beef up its crisis-management processes. Senior executives developed a manual for how to open after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts.

They even have a "storm center" where they can assess the status of Waffle Houses in a storm's path.

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 the idea is “more about marketing and building goodwill than profits.”

I found this story so interesting because of the way it has challenged some of my theories about fast-food restaurants and how and when I'll spend money on them. This is one chain that's focusing on a laudable ideal.

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

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2011.

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

Have you heard about the Waffle House Index?
If a Waffle House is closed after a natural disaster, that's a really bad sign.