Waffle House is considered a stalwart eatery that virtually never closes − not for Christmas and, rarely, even in the face of natural disaster.
However, the record-breaking wind speeds, flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Irma last week led to Waffle House hitting a new record. During the most ravaging parts of Irma, 157 Waffle House locations shut down in Georgia and Florida, which is the most spots the Atlanta-headquartered restaurant chain has ever closed, Pat Warner, Waffle House spokesperson, told Atlanta Magazine.
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FEMA actually tracks the chain’s closures as a way to gauge how bad storms are, so the record number of Waffle House closings is quite telling. About 144 locations closed in Florida, the remaining closures were in various parts of Georgia.
“Before Irma there was [Hurricane] Katrina, where we had to close 107 restaurants for evacuations,” Warner told the magazine. “So, Irma has set the Waffle House record.”
FEMA’s tracking of the restaurant closures, which was coined the Waffle House Index, came to be due to few of chain’s 1,900 locatons ever closing due to hurricanes or tropical storms. The beloved dining chain has about 300 locations in metro Atlanta, and most of its locations span across the Southeast.
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“It just doesn’t happen where Waffle House is normally shut down,” Philip Strouse, FEMA’s private sector liaison for the Southeast, told Markeplace in 2015. "They’re the canary in the coalmine, if you will."
During Irma and Hurricane Harvey, officials with Waffle House created plans for restaurants in the hurricanes paths, like offering a limited menu in the case a location loses power and enlisting “jump teams” from other states to assist in keeping certain locations open as long as safety wasn’t a concern, according to Warner.
“If the Waffle House is closed, our associates are not making money, so we feel there is a responsibility to them to get opened quickly after a storm,” Warner says. “Each storm has it’s own personality, and we learn something from each one. The best we can do is be prepared and be ready to roll back in right after.”