Waffle House - Immune System of the SouthEast U.S.
"It [Waffle House] is indeed marvelous. An irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation is welcomed." - Anthony Bourdain
I knew it was all going to hell when Waffle House closed down for more than three days.
Waffle House is a staple of trucker diets, road trips, drunk expenditures, stoned experiments, and this-is-the-only-viable-option-out-here-besides-McDonalds, meals. It's hard to drive a significant distance across the Southeast without passing by at least three of those suckers. From Charleston to Savannah, Mobile to Richmond, and even some in the northeast if you can believe it.
Additionally, Waffle House manages to keep its doors open while most family diners and fast-food chains keep their doors closed. In fact, FEMA even has a disaster measurement index based on Waffle House closures and menu availability. When 99% of Waffle Houses had closed by mid-April in 2020: I knew Covid-19 wasn't ending anytime soon.
So, what is the secret to the survival of this southern comfort, cheap breakfast, and late-night last resort? Persistence and protocol.
In an interview with the Center for Disaster Preparedness, Waffle House's Vice President of Culture (yes that is the actual title), Pat Werner said of their 24/7 disaster preparedness model "In 1955, Joe Rogers, Sr., and Tom Forkner opened the first Waffle House and from day one, we’ve been open 24/7. Joe has said that if you want to be a service to your community, then you need to be there for them 24/7. That has carried over through today." Waffle House pretty much always has a fast comeback for their employees after a disaster, as such Waffle Houses are prepped with backup portable generators, a mobile command center, employee training, and after each disaster they do a report. This helps Waffle House develop new mechanisms for bouncing back from and surviving disasters.
As I am not a Waffle House executive, nor have I worked for the titular company, my experience with the brand is not as professional. My experience is much more casual - but necessary. Because my family wasn't (and isn't) rich we only flew for travel once in my childhood. We didn't even travel that often, perhaps that's why I've made it my goal to spend my adult years globetrotting. Yet every few years, we saved up enough money to take a small road trip, sometimes to the Blue Ridge Mountains or to a college for my sister to visit. We do not have an RV, so these trips usually consisted of my divorced parents switching off at the wheel as my older sister and I squirmed in the back with whatever bags didn't fit in the trunk. Notably, the backseat did not recline. This resulted in my sister and I getting terrible sleep and cramps all over my back.
The one store that would reliably be open at two in the morning when we were bumped awake and craving food was Waffle House. Its bright yellow sign shining like a lighthouse over the backroads near the interstate. The warm waffles and the mountains of syrup I drenched over my food provided momentary relief from the car's claustrophobia. Moreover, it helped me survive my terrible car sickness.
"But Lucy," I hear you say, "Waffle House isn't nearly as good as this mom and pop diner on the second floor of an abandoned warehouse! Why is Waffle House worth praising like this?!?" You'd be correct on the first count, Waffle House is not the best restaurant I've eaten at, and lacks the culture of many small Americana restaurants. Additionally, while I do feel some remorse for not boosting small businesses here, bear in mind we have to be careful when promoting a small business without their consent. I'm not saying Waffle House is flawless or quote-on-quote "The Best," but as a Floridian, I feel a certain kinship with the golden blocks.
Just about every year of my childhood a hurricane would come through Florida or come just shy of us. Some years they weren't so bad, the power flickers a bit and restaurants close for a while. Other times the power goes out for a week or more. Losing A/C in the dead of a humid Florida summer feels like you're being steamed alive. I feel privileged saying this but frankly, hurricanes didn't phase me so much. At least not personally. The apartments we lived in were very sturdy, we could survive a few days without power, and we were always prepared with some battery-powered lights, portable chargers, board games, and bottled water so we could make it through the unpleasant few days while the power grids came back on and emergency workers responded.
Much like Waffle House, I never worried about myself because I knew how to survive, but worried for my community. I worried about the nursing homes closing down, low-income kids losing days of schooling and possibly food, working-class people going without, trees falling into homes, and hospitals losing patients. I remember walking down streets after the storm seeing wood chips all over the roads and water still draining from the streets. I remember calling all my friends to make sure they were safe. As a kid, I could only help so much, but I did what I could, likewise, Waffle House can't do everything, but they do what they can. That's the recipe I bring home, and all of us should bring home from our travels. Survive and help your fellow man in whatever small way you can.
Please consider donating to the following hurricane relief funds, or other disaster relief funds that serve your community, or neighboring ones. As bad as Florida gets hit, the PR and Caribbean often bear the brunt of storms. Help as much as you can - in whatever way you can.
Find local disaster relief services in the U.S. here.