The Waffle House Index

People come up with some very elegant and down-to-earth indicators of the state of complex systems. The most widely known is probably the Big Mac Index, which has been around for a couple of decades and shows the price of Big Macs in different countries as a way to gauge their purchasing power. But there are others, like the Men’s Underwear Index (men buy less underwear in economic downturns) and the Hemline Index (the length of women’s skirts varies with economic health; better economy = shorter skirts). And according to the Wall Street Journal, FEMA uses the Waffle House Index to tell how badly damaged an area is after a natural disaster: if the Waffle House is closed somewhere, that means it’s serious.

They assign stoplight levels to areas normally served by a Waffle House: green means it’s open and serving a full menu, so there’s little damage; yellow means it’s open, but serving a limited menu, which means they’re running off a generator or gas grill, which in turn means there are significant infrastructure issues with either the power or food supply; and red means they’re closed, which is like DEFCON 1 for FEMA. The reason the agency uses this index is two-fold:

  • The Waffle House is all over the South, which gets the brunt of America’s natural disasters (because that’s how God shows his love: through tribulation)
  • The company has a policy of keeping stores open as much as possible, and if they have to close, to reopen as soon as possible

That policy is apparently a marketing ploy, because it’s not an instant money maker: if you’re the only place in town that serves food to hungry, battered people, they’ll remember that during the good times. So they scramble to get generators and gas and ice to stores that have been damaged, and can generally be the only open restaurant in a devastated area. Along with Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, Waffle House is at the top of the list of companies with a good history of disaster response. When Hurricane Irene hit the mid-Atlantic, 22 Waffle Houses lost power, and all but one were back in business after 3 days.

From The Wall Street Journal, via Gizmodo

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