In an Emergency, Head to ... Waffle House?

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

July 13, 2011

In the wake of an emergency?whether it?s hurricanes, tornadoes or ice storms?you could stay indoors. Or you could head to the nearest Waffle House or perhaps a Home Depot.

Norcross, GA-based Waffle House is earning kudos from academia and the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a model for disaster preparedness. It?s a product of many years of doing business in Florida?s Panhandle and other hurricane alleys.

?Disaster management and risk management in global supply chains can actually be a competitive advantage,? said Panos Kouvelis, a professor of operations and manufacturing management at Washington University in St. Louis. ?You have to think of it as an opportunity to get ahead of the game by being better prepared.?

Kouvelis, who made the remarks to EHS Today, a magazine covering the environment, health and safety, said Lowe?s, Walmart Stores and Atlanta-based Home Depot also set the standard in preparing for emergencies. But it?s not easy.

?On the one hand, your own supply chain is exposed,? he said. ?At the same time, your stores are supposed to be the first to react and provide the basic supplies. Your supply goes down while your demand goes up.?

Home Depot has an extensive disaster response team to handle hurricanes, fires, floods, tornadoes and blizzards. The team includes IT, merchandising, HR, security and supply chain executives.

The company receives early alerts on bad weather via email. In an emergency situation, the team assembles in a command center at headquarters. In the event of a hurricane, the goal is to be the last outlet to close and the first to open. For example, eight days after its store in Joplin, MO, was destroyed by a massive tornado, the company set up a functioning lumber yard.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate has long been a fan of Waffle House?s ability to prepare for emergencies and bounce back quickly from hurricanes and other harsh weather. It can operate on a limited menu and keeps managers out of the disaster zone but close enough to return immediately after an evacuation.

As a state official in Florida, Fugate coined the ?Waffle House test.? If a Waffle House is open after a hurricane, you can assume the water and power are still on. If it?s closed, conditions are pretty bad.

?We?re flattered that he looked to what we did and recognized what we did,? said Pat Warner, a vice president at Waffle House. ?It kind of goes back to our culture. The faster we can get open, the faster the community can get back to normal. Our people need to get back to work, and our customers need a place to eat.?

Dan Stoneking, director of the private-sector office at FEMA, said statistics show up to 40% of businesses affected by a natural or manmade disaster never reopen. ?Keep your business out of this statistic,? he said in a blog post. ?Learn about the resources available to help your company prepare for a disaster?and stay in business.?

Over the years, Waffle House has refined its emergency response. It creates key fobs with the phone numbers of all the managers in a particular area. A recreational vehicle outfitted with satellite communications rolls out from the Norcross headquarters to an affected area immediately after a hurricane, parking at a local restaurant chosen as a temporary command center. The company supplies affected restaurants with generators.

After this year?s Atlanta ice storms, for example, Waffle House asked corporate employees with four-wheel-drive vehicles to grab food from a warehouse in Norcross to supply local restaurants.

The company tries to flood the zone with manpower after a storm to give its local employees a rest. After the Alabama tornadoes, people from metro Atlanta, Mississippi and Tennessee went to Tuscaloosa. And after Hurricane Katrina, teams came to the Gulf Coast from Georgia, the Carolinas and Texas to spell the local workers. ?After the storm, since we are one of the few places open, we?re really busy,? Warner said. ?Those folks needed a break.?

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