During a hurricane, most people aren’t thinking about waffles, yet in the South, Waffle House, which has its headquarters in Georgia, has become a safe haven for many. The 24-hour restaurant chain, which is beloved for its all-day breakfast treats, rarely shuts its doors, even when the eatery is in the path of a hurricane like Florence or Michael.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, Waffle House opened a food truck in Panama City, Florida, to provide free food to the storm victims. The food truck, which is set up at 631 W. 15th St. in Panama City, tweeted yesterday that food would be available at the truck until 6 pm local time. Today, the truck continued handing out free food.
Surprisingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relies on the Waffle House to assess how storms are affecting local communities by using color-coded Waffle House Index that monitors when restaurant locations are open, closed, or only serving a limited menu.
According to Waffle House spokesperson Pat Warner, the chain works with several government agencies including FEMA. The index, which was launched in 2004, enables officials to "kind of see how a community is coming back," Warner says. "They help us by providing power and highway info, so it's really a partnership." Though other companies also collaborate with FEMA, "we seem to get the spotlight" in the media, he adds.
Hurricane Florence, which made landfall on the North Carolina coast on Friday where it was downgraded to a tropical storm, has killed at least 16 people so far, according to authorities, yet Waffle House has been soldiering on.
"We're doing pretty well, though it's hard to get a good assessment right now," Warner told MONEY. "A lot of our restaurants are open. We have some closing in Wilmington," on the coast.
The company, which has developed its hurricane preparation system over decades, also has a Waffle House Storm Center. "We were tracking the storm all last week. On Monday, we started putting the wheels in motion on three main things: people, power, and food," Warner says.
Waffle House deploys more than 100 people from other markets, who are known as "jump teams," to assist local staff during storms so they can concentrate on the wellbeing of their families. The chain also provides power generators and food supplies once transportation is possible. CEO Walt Ehmer recently visited Myrtle Beach, SC to assess the situation, and other executives have been on hand to coordinate relief.
Aside from providing warm meals, Waffle House also becomes a meeting place for many during storms. "We're that gathering place where people get together to talk about local happenings," Warner says. "After the storm, we feel like we need to be there. It brings the community back faster."
First responders and power company employees usually visit the employees to see how everyone is faring.
"You'll start to see folks getting out more, back at Waffle House to check in on everybody, make sure everybody's okay, get a good meal," Warner says. "That sense of community drives us through."
As for the menu, Waffle House has four strategic limited menus during disasters: a no-power menu, a no-water menu, and two limited menus with more options depending on customer volume.
"With no electricity, you're not going to get waffles. We'll have canned drinks but no fountain drinks. We'll have a lot of things you can cook on the grill: hash browns, eggs, sausage. Cheeseburgers are big on the no-power menu," Warner says.
To help those struggling during storms, Waffle House also offers discount prices at times like these. Bills are calculated with the lowest tax rate in the local market and then rounded down to the nearest dollar. "Some people might not have credit cards," Warner says. "It makes everything more affordable and easier for everyone."