Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Waffle House Index, or how to use a comfort-food chain to measure discomfort

You've got your Dow Jones Industrial stock index, your NASDAQ index, and now, you've got your Waffle House Index. 

Today's Wall Street Journal ran a front-page piece quoting FEMA administrator Craig Fugate about how to gauge the impact of a hurricane or other natural disaster on a community. Fugate calls it the 'Waffle House Index,' and it works like this, according to the Journal:

"Green means the (Waffle House) restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."

I love it: This must be the first time a comfort-food chain has been used to measure a local community's discomfort.

The story goes on to report that the suburban Atlanta-based restaurant chain "spends almost nothing on advertising" but "has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate."

For example, the morning after Hurricane Irene rolled through Weldon, N.C., "the local Waffle House, still without electricity, was cooking up scrambled eggs and sausage biscuits." Said a local patron: "I hadn't had a hot meal in two days, and I knew they'd be open."

True confession time: I've never been a big Waffle House fan. Where I grew up, in Greensboro, N.C., we had Jan's House, which my father loved and I believe is now closed; Your House, which is still open 24-7; and the Toddle House, another all-night waffle house style restaurant that is apparently history. I loved the name, "Toddle House." It conjured images of happily overserved patrons 'toddling' out, woozy from too many waffles.

But my indifference to the Waffle House has now changed. How can you not love a business that works overtime to serve its customers in their time of need and doesn't gauge them in the process? (I checked he prices on the limited menus they offered customers after Irene; $1.40 for a sausage-and-egg biscuit hardly qualifies as price gauging.) 

Did I mention that the Waffle House is a Southern chain? (There's that Southern hospitality thing again.) And for the record, as soon I read about FEMA's Craig Fugate "Waffle House Index," I knew he was from the South. I Googled him; he's from Gainesville, Florida. There's something in the Southern soul that lends itself to making observations like Fugate's that are both down-home simple and witty at the same time. 

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  1. I saw this article in the local paper. It is pretty cool!

  2. I still remember when the giant ice storm hit Atlanta, Peachtree Street was a skating rink, and both patients and physicians were being ferried to the hospital by helicopter because the roads were that totally worthless, but wafflehouse refused to close! :) I asked the wafflehouse how they were getting people in and out - they said they just had a room nearby rented and were having their employees sleep at easy walking distance and getting paid a wee bit more then normal.