How 'Waffle House Index' plays a key role in FEMA hurricane response; 69 percent of Bojangles' are in Florence's path
By Mark Puleo, AccuWeather staff writer
September 13, 2018, 6:23:50 PM EDT
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Two of the Southeast’s most beloved restaurant chains are playing a larger role in the Hurricane Florence conversation than many may realize. As Florence begins to batter the East Coast, restaurant chains like Bojangles are bracing for the worst of impacts in the direct path of the storm. On the opposite hand, Waffle House is being used as a reference for government institutions on storm severity.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits has grown to over 750 locations. Over 500 of those locations are in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of the franchises being in the path of Florence. The storm has already dealt a blow to the restaurant’s stock value, as shares had dropped as much as 5 percent through Wednesday.
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As of Thursday morning, nearly every franchise location on the North Carolina coast was either already closed or set to close in the coming hours. All 10 locations in and around Myrtle Beach are also closed. Brady Walker shared these maps on Twitter, depicting how many of the region's most beloved chains might be directly impacted by the storm.
Bad news if you like fast food. Locations of Bojangles’, Cook Out, Waffle House, and Zaxby’s in the path of Florence. pic.twitter.com/3iE9PU3Fy3— brady (@geo_brady) September 12, 2018
Hurricanes have caused restaurants to see significant drops in stock value in recent years. Over 700 Starbucks locations were forced to close in Florida and Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Irma last year. The Fiesta Restaurant Group, which operates Taco Cabana, was also significantly impacted by Harvey and Irma, as it saw stocks fall over 5 percent.
One restaurant that almost never closes or is hurt by storms, however, is Waffle House. The famously resilient chain is consistently known to be the last of businesses to remain open when others shutter up. The company has a reputation for never closing and even has a group of restaurant managers known as ‘jump teams’ that travel to storm-stricken areas to help franchises continue operating.
Waffle House’s well-known sturdiness also serves as a monitor of sorts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Known as the “Waffle House Index,” FEMA has used the color-coded maps to update the public on how storm conditions are impacting areas since 2004. If a Waffle House restaurant is open and serving its entire menu, the map shows a green location. If the franchise is open but serving a limited menu, the index shows a yellow location. If the restaurant is entirely closed, the rarest of scenarios, the index is red.
In Myrtle Beach, the Waffle House location on Frontage Road posted a sign on the front door that the location would be closed. For patrons brushing the evacuation warnings aside, a locked door from the one location that almost never closes might have been a sign that the storm was getting serious.
According to FEMA.gov, the Waffle House test doesn’t just inform the public about which restaurants are open but it also helps paint a picture about how the community as a whole is faring. Most Waffle House closures are due to widespread road closures or mass power outages.
Hurricane Matthew’s devastation in 2016 was one of the few times in restaurant history that Waffle House issued a widespread shutdown of locations. From Titusville to Fort Pierce, Florida, every Waffle House was closed as operations became too difficult to continue.
One of the few other times when a string of Waffle Houses were forced to close was during Hurricane Katrina. During and after the storm, 107 locations were forced to close throughout Mississippi. Some locations still managed to continue operating thanks to refrigerated trucks and oil trucks brought in by the franchise. The storm destroyed seven Waffle Houses, and the closures led management to revamp the company's disaster preparedness efforts.
For those in directly affected areas, be it first responders or residents who didn't evacuate, the turned on lights and running kitchen stoves of Waffle House often represent a sense of calmness and relief during the most stressful of times. Even if the kitchen is down to its limited menu, which sometimes consists of just bacon and eggs, the franchise aims to be an ally to those in need.
"If we are open quickly after the storm, that means the community is coming back and folks are out, we are getting back to that sense of normalcy," Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner said to CNN. "After a storm, they're really looking to us to be there to help them out because they're used to us being there the rest of the year."
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