Waffle House restaurants have a reputation as a hardy breed: The average Waffle House is unfazed by bad weather that shutters other restaurants. Even after all but the worst disasters, Waffle Houses are usually open right after with little effect other than perhaps taking some items off their menu.
Aware of this vaunted Waffle House resilience, former FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate devised a rough metric for how hard a storm or other natural disaster hits a county. The Waffle House Index for an area has three values: green if the restaurant is open with a full menu and running off grid power, yellow if the menu is limited and the restaurant has limited power or is running off a generator, and red when severed conditions keep the restaurant closed.
The privately owned company does invest in preparedness: Contingency planning, extra supplies in warehouses, and even an RV converted into a mobile command center, per a WSJ article, which noted the example of Hurricane Irene. In 2011, Irene shut down 22 Waffle House restaurants across four states. All but one reopened within a day or two.
While still at FEMA, Fugate claimed the Index was more than levity during difficult times. A red on the Index is a rarity: As Fugate said in 2011, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you get to work.” The Index may be informal, but it reveals a lot about how much the element may have battered an area.
The Index will not sound odd to some. Economists, for example, often have their own ad hoc metrics, from the more accepted Big Mac Index to the more esoteric and downright peculiar indicators based on the lengths of hemlines or haircuts, contractor response times, painkiller or beer consumption, and the attractiveness of restaurant servers.
Given the scope and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the simplicity of the Waffle House Index makes it an attractive at-a-glance indicator. Two questions, then: One, is the Index applicable now, and two, what is it telling us?
One initial limitation is clear: Waffle House restaurants are open in only about half of U.S. states. Most of the 1,992 restaurants are in the South, naturally creating a bias towards southern states. A second broader caveat is that the Index has been used to measure the impact of natural resources, not of a disease outbreak.
With that in mind, what does the Waffle House Index reveal? On Mar. 24, 365 restaurants were closed. This condition red rose to 418 by Mar. 25, over 20 percent of all open restaurants, and rose further to 429 by Mar. 26.
The Index may serve as a reminder of the extent of the social and economic impact ahead of the peak of the pandemic, which even more optimistic scenarios suggest has yet to arrive—even though the U.S. now has the most reported COVID-19 cases as of this week. Per Vibe, revenue for the chain is down 70 percent, and Waffle House alone could lay off as many as 40,000 employees if this continues. A Waffle House representative told Newsweek suggests one use for the Index: “…help people understand how big of an impact this virus has had on the restaurant industry. The reference to ‘Code Red’ also highlights the tremendous impacts that are being felt by many of our Associates and their families.”
In a pandemic, the Index is necessarily less rigorous but might still be useful to reach and educate the public. The ensuing publicity may also encourage individuals and businesses to enhance preparations for future disasters.
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