Editor's note: The havoc created by the Superstorm Sandy is first of all a human catastrophe, and our thoughts are with those who lost so much. The storm also created enormous problems for businesses, especially those that depend on a smoothly operating supply chain. In the wake of recent events, we thought it would be worthwhile taking a look at how one company, the restaurant chain Waffle House, executes a disaster response plan that gets affected outlets up and running quickly. The following story, written by Editor at Large Steve Geary, is previously unpublished.
According to The Wall Street Journal, when disaster strikes, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Craig Fugate, looks to a couple of key indicators to get a sense of the severity of the emergency. One of them is the "Waffle House Indicator."
If Waffle House is closed in a disaster area, the index is red and Fugate knows he has a serious challenge on his hands. If Waffle House is serving a limited menu, his index is yellow and he knows things are bad. If Waffle House is running full bore, Fugate knows that there is work to be done but he can set the index to green.
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Floods. Blizzards. Wildfires. When any of these events occur, when the rest of us are sandbagging the dock doors, trying to keep the food in the freezers from spoiling, or scrambling to get our families out of danger, Waffle House steps it up.
Waffle House restaurants rarely shut down, even in the face of a hurricane or a tornado, and when they do, they are generally back up and running in short order.
Waffle House is a master at disaster response. The chain of some 1,500 restaurants known for being open all day, every day is ranked by some as one of the top companies in the world for disaster response, mentioned alongside such obvious contenders as Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot.
Waffle House plans for the worst and only hopes for the best. The company has established crisis management processes that include manuals for the restaurant managers on how to reopen after a disaster. Contingency plans spell out what to do if there is no power or no ice. Managers know how to import generators, food, water, ice, and cooks from outside the disaster area to quickly re-establish service—regardless of the official government response.
MOBILIZING THE RESPONSE
When a natural disaster is forecast, Waffle House dusts off the plans and opens up the war room at corporate headquarters in Norcross, Ga. "We have folks staged, ready to roll: food trucks, generators, construction teams," says Pat Warner, a vice president at Waffle House.
Waffle House even has a mobile command center that can be dispatched to coordinate logistics when disaster happens. Known as the EM-50, the same tag Bill Murray's character and his crew gave their "Urban Assault Vehicle" in the movie "Stripes," it's an RV outfitted with satellite communications and a wireless network, according to Warner. The unit lives at corporate headquarters in Norcross and is ready to roll at all times.
Once the EM-50 has arrived on the scene of a disaster, operational control passes from the war room to a senior executive in the affected area. Using the EM-50 as a command post, the executive takes over directing the response, relaying information back to corporate headquarters on matters like which stores are going to open, where to deploy generators, and where to send supplies, Warner says.
The decision to outfit an RV as a command unit came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "After Katrina, we had a lot of trouble with communications," explains Warner. "We decided we were going to invest in a mobile command center." Since that time, the EM-50 has pulled out of the parking lot for natural disasters including Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Irene, and the Alabama tornadoes.
In the wake of a disaster, an individual Waffle House can see sales triple. By being ready, having logistics plans to provide needed services in the wake of a tragedy, the Waffle House does well by doing good.
When asked about the cost of the company's disaster response, Warner acknowledges that the cost is high but adds that it's more than a matter of dollars and cents. "Short term, it's not the best business decision," he says, "but it's an investment in the future and the right thing to do." That's a business strategy that is hard to argue with, and it generates goodwill long after the disaster is over. "It's in our culture, being there and staying open," Warner says.