The Waffle House Index: Weathering the storm with breakfast food

  • September 14, 2018
  • By Kurt Greenbaum
  • 3 minute read

It’s very smart. This is a way to evaluate the situation with limited data.

—Panos Kouvelis, director of Olin’s Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation
Panos Kouvelis
Panos Kouvelis

What are the components of your company’s supply chain? They might include inventory, transportation, access to labor, water, power, and other utilities. How resilient is your supply chain in a crisis? How much inventory do you have on hand and how quickly can you replenish it? Where is your labor staff, how soon can it mobilize, and how did the crisis affect them? Do you have back-up sources of electricity and water?

These and similar issues form the core of the figurative “Waffle House index,” taught to students by an Olin Business School professor and named years ago by a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2011.

The index refers to a clue into the level of devastation wrought by a natural disaster—disasters like Hurricane Florence, which made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, NC, early Friday morning. And Panos Kouvelis, director of Olin’s Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation, says it makes sense.

“It’s very smart. This is a way to evaluate the situation with limited data,” Kouvelis said. “In times like this, demand goes up and supply goes down at the same time. But companies like Waffle House have good playbooks. They pre-position supplies, they make sure they know how to staff their stores. They know what inventory they have and what they don’t have. Their playbook makes sense. That’s the resilience that we talk about in supply chain management.”

First dubbed the “Waffle House Index” by former FEMA Director W. Craig Fugate after a devastating western Missouri tornado, the notion isn’t actually an index at all. There’s no “big board” available for public view, no place to gauge the status of the Waffle House chain.

But Kouvelis said that a quick look at Waffle Houses in the post-hurricane landscape—the aftermath the Carolinas face late this weekend or early next week—can provide a leading indicator of how badly the storm harmed the commercial infrastructure. Are the Waffle Houses open, serving full menus, and staffed? Other businesses are likely not far behind. Are the Waffle Houses staffed with skeleton crews and serving partial menus? The level of devastation is higher and recovery may take a few more days.

If the Waffle House is closed…well, buckle up. We’re probably in for a longer recovery period.

And it’s not just about Waffle House, which is heavily concentrated in the southeast, said Kouvelis, Olin’s Emerson Distinguished Professor of Operations and Manufacturing Management.

“Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart tend to be well prepared for these disasters because they have seen it many times in the past,” said Kouvelis, who teaches “supply chain risk management” using cases like Waffle House and similarly prepared companies. “It’s a smart part of their brand image: When you need us, we are there.”

Pictured above: A Waffle House in the Carolinas in 2013, via Flickr user “rpavich” used under Creative Commons license for commercial use.

About the Author

Kurt Greenbaum

Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

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