Benchmarking and Breakfast – What We Can Learn From the Waffle House…

So which companies are today’s paragons of modern business practices? The ones most frequently cited in studies and articles highlighting excellent customer service, innovative approaches to design and product development, and for creating and sustaining rich, engaged, and enlightened environments where employees are valued and recognized for their contributions to organizational success?
Which companies make the headlines, have authors penning books about their strategies and leaders, and are the most sought after by national and regional Human Resources conferences for appearances and seminars? All of us in the HR, recruiting, and talent management game want to learn all we can about these superstar companies, in hopes that we might be able to pick up a strategy we can implement here or an approach to management or leadership there, in hopes some of their mojo will be be transferable to our organizations.But we also know that despite careful study, examination of best practices, and dedicated worship at the church of these famous and almost iconic brands, that often what they do to succeed and prosper might not work for us. Regardless of all the information and reporting available for us to review, we know that we can’t simply adopt a couple of programs or policies and suddenly transform our company into the next Zappos, Apple, Waffle House, or Facebook. It just doesn’t come that easy.

Wait a second – did that last bit just mention Waffle House? In the same sentence with Apple and Zappos? Well, it turns out our friends at the Waffle House probably deserve to be thought of in such lofty company. Why?  Well, it isn’t (completely) for the waffles and biscuits. It’s for the remarkable planning, strategy, execution, and dedication to customer service the chain exhibits in times of natural disaster. When a hurricane or a tornado strikes, the Waffle House springs into action. From a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘How To Measure a Storm’s Fury One Breakfast at a Time’ –

“When a hurricane makes landfall, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on a couple of metrics to assess its destructive power. First, there is the well-known Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Then there is what he calls the “Waffle House Index.” Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.
“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

Essentially – the Waffle House, with hundreds of its restaurants in areas of the country prone to such natural disasters like hurricanes, getting back up and running in times of crisis is a matter of organizational priority and pride. When the communities and customers the Waffle House serves are in their most acute time of need, with the power out and food supplies either spoiled or simply not easily available, when a decent hot meal and cup of coffee are most desperately desired, the Waffle House has developed and implemented a strategy to re-open as quickly as possible. Sure the initial menu might be a little limited, but the key point is the House is open, and folks who have had their world turned upside down by a hurricane or a tornado can get some waffles and sausage, and maybe a few minutes of normalcy back.

It’s great business, even if it isn’t particularly profitable, there is a lot of extra cost associated with disaster planning and extra staffing, but the goodwill the chain generates by being there when times are tough is a sound investment for times when customers actually do have a choice in where to eat.

So sure, keep reading those rockstar CEO books, reading pieces on HBR about the genius that is Steve Jobs and Apple, but instead of slumping back down in your chair thinking ‘We can’t be Zappos’, maybe set your sights on the Waffle House instead. And pass me a biscuit.

FOT Background Check

Steve Boese
Steve Boese is fondly known to many as the HR Technology blogger. By day, he is the Co-Chair of Human Resource Executive's HR Technology Conference. He is also a former Director of Talent Management Strategy at Oracle and an HR Technology instructor. Steve can also be found hosting the HR Happy Hour Show and Podcast … you know, where a bunch of HR pros get together and call in to talk about HR stuff. Sounds like an SNL skit, we know. But when you have Dave Ulrich, the grandfather of HR as show guests, well, I guess you’re doing something right.  Talk to Steve via emailLinkedInTwitter or Facebook.


  1. chris says:

    I always hear about excellent service and efficiency there.

  2. Waffle House is not just good for customers. They must do something right for employees as well. The badges of the employees tell how long they have been employees and there are an amazing number who have been with the company a long, long time. I once lost a recruit to a managerial position at Waffle House. I had to find out why. The answer was opportunity, money, and a culture that valued employees.

  3. Shannon says:

    Love the humanity in this post–a. Waffle House is a “real” (aka, not all flashy and shiny) company. b. they do what they can to help people feel normal during chaotic and stressful situations.
    This is not something that would get a lot of media attention I imagine, but it is something that deserves to be told.
    I feel like a lot of companies forget what the “H” in “HR” stands for; ironic that the HR Tech guy wrote about it:) (I am guessing it is because of the technology that goes into disaster planning, but I’m just guessing here…)

  4. Well said, I really like this post. In the ever- present quest to do things quicker and with fewer resources, we often look to technology as a replacement for humanity, our silver bullet, if you will. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE TECHNOLOGY! (And I am quite sure a good bit of technology supports Waffle House’s ability to be prepared when disaster strikes.) I will be keeping my eye on the WH as I think about best practices, and I’ll do that over medium with a side of scattered and covered.

  5. Steve Boese says:

    Chis – Me too.
    Mike – Thanks very much and I agree it is almost entirely a culture story. And a greasy biscuit story.
    Shannon – Often the tech geeks show the most humanity. It is the evil recruiters that write on this site you have to look out for. But there is quite a bit of technology and communications coordination at play here for sure.
    Shelly – No doubts. The low-tech, cook some eggs and ham over a grill approach is just fine during a crisis. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Hi Steve,
    I recently had the pleasure of eating at Waffle House for the first time (thanks to a power outage courtesy of Hurricane Irene). I was impressed with the good spirits of the employee’s and how well run the restaurant was, despite the chaos we drove through to get there (power lines and tree’s down).
    I love your concluding point here, there are a lot of small to medium private companies that are doing great things out there but don’t get the exposure of the big companies. It’s great to see the spotlight sent their way!

  7. Steve Boese says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Melissa. Really reinforces the point about commitment and dedication that seems to make the Waffle House stand out. Now I just wish they’d open a store near where I live!

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