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

Steve Boese Communication, Good HR, Steve Boese

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.