Meteorologists track the severity of a tropical storm with a number system. You're no doubt familiar with it from following Hurricane Dorian's journey from a terrifying category five storm pounding the Bahamas to the slightly less scary category two hurricane currently sweeping up the coast of Florida. 

But emergency preparedness officials like those at FEMA have another, informal way to capture how awful a storm really is: they call it the "Waffle House Index."  If a local Waffle House in an area hit by a natural disaster is open and serving a full menu, the index is green and things aren't too bad. If it's serving a limited menu, that's a more concerning yellow. If it's shut, that's red and you have a full fledged disaster on your hands. 

It's a simple way to capture the severity of a disaster and it works because Waffle House is known for being awesomely prepared for whatever nature throws at them. How do they do it, and what tips about bracing for disasters like Dorian can other small businesses learn from the namesake of the Waffle House Index? That's the topic of a timely USA Today article from Annie Blanks (hat tip to Kottke). 

It all starts with the right information. 

Before Waffle House can send in supplies and support to stores affected by a disaster, they need to know which ones are affected, how badly, and what they need. That means the first step in staying open is making sure information is flowing from the field back to HQ and vice versa. 

"The way we're structured is our leadership is in the field (wherever the storm is expected to hit). For instance, our senior VP and executive VP over the Florida markets are in Florida right now," Pat Warner, director of public relations and external affairs for Waffle House, explains to Blanks. 

While leadership in the field sends the home office updates, the home offices relays back the latest weather reports and internal data on which restaurants are seeing higher volumes. Once it's clear which restaurants need help, it's time to send in a "jump team."  

Send in the jump team. 

A "jump team" sounds like something out of that spy thriller you were reading on the beach this summer, but apparently if you want to keep serving flapjacks in a hurricane you need to have one at the ready too. 

"Jump teams are made up of Waffle House contractors, construction workers, gas line experts, restaurant operators, food providers and other associates who are assembled and ready to go wherever needed at a moment's notice. Their purpose is to help relieve local Waffle House operators and employees who need to evacuate, be with their families or tend to their homes when a storm hits, and help make sure restaurants are able to open quickly after a storm or stay open during a storm," Blanks explains. 

Their effectiveness depends on keeping things the same at all of the chain's 2,000 or so stores. "The great thing about our system is we try to be consistent across the nation. If you know how to run a Waffle House in Mississippi, you can run one in South Carolina, because all the systems are the same," notes Warner. 

And that resilience is about much more than the company's bottom line. Warner and emergency responders both insist that getting businesses like Waffle House open has psychological as well as logistical and business benefits. 

An open Waffle House "means the community has hope," one director of safety for a Florida school district says. "It's like the sunrise after the storm."

Lessons for other businesses 

Smaller businesses might not be able to replicate Waffle House's war room approach to handling disasters, but there are a few simple lessons any company of any size can learn from their approach: 

  • Information is power. The more you know about the likely needs of your business and the resources available to meet them, the better off you are. Some of this information can only be gathered in the field. Other essentials might be only available from the head office. Therefore, it's important to keep open lines of communication between on-the-ground employees and the team you have supporting them at other locations. 

  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Waffle House's CIA-level of preparedness may beyond many businesses, but the idea of gathering supplies and making plans for every eventuality before a disaster strikes is something most companies can strive to replicate. Preparing ahead of time offers more impact for your effort than waiting to see what happens and then trying to figure things out. 

  • Build for resilience. Waffle House has consciously decided to standardize their stores to make it easier for team members to sub in for each other in the event of a disaster or just everyday operational needs. This amounts to building for resilience -- making sure that if one part of your operation fails, you have a replacement (and maybe even a backup for that) available. Again, it's something small businesses can emulate.

Published on: Sep 4, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.