The day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Waffle House Chairman and CEO Joe Rogers, Jr. arrived in Gulfport, Miss., with employees, generators and supplies. His team had a restaurant open that same afternoon - and was handing out water and ice to residents and relief workers.
The company, which has a long history of speedy and effective response to hurricanes, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Waffle House has nearly 15,000 restaurants in 25 states; slightly more than half are franchise operations; others are owned by the company.
Rogers sat down with Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy in a Waffle House in Norcross to talk about his company's efforts. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Do you always go along with your hurricane response teams?
A: Absolutely. That's where the team is playing the important game. If I'm the coach, I'm supposed to show up. It's hard to coach by remote control. We always go. That's the first response. The senior management team shows up that day [or] the next day.
Q: How do you prepare?
A: A hurricane or anything like that that is predictable in advance - all the work starts in advance, probably four or five days ahead of this one. I think we fought our first hurricane in the '60s. The preparation is all about two places - away from the scene, where in fact you plan for what resources you are going to send in. Then there's the local rescue operation. Back here the preparation is for operational support to go into the affected areas, because they are going to be under-manned.
Q: How were Katrina and Rita different for you than other storms?
A: Thirty years ago you didn't have mandatory evacuation. They wouldn't make you leave. They wouldn't make the businesses shut down. We traditionally would have stayed open along I-10. We have over 130 restaurants from Gulf Shores, Ala., all the way over through Baton Rouge where we had to shut down beforehand. You can shut the restaurants down and store the food; but the real question is where are all the people going. That's become the real crazy dimension of the last decade. That evacuation in Houston for Rita made no sense whatsoever. You've got to get people off the beaches, you've got to get them out of low-lying areas, [then] you get them to strong structures that aren't going to flood. There's no reason to go 500 miles inland.
Q: Who goes on your rescue operations?
A: We take teams of people from all over the country and assemble them, four or five operators to a team. In this case the first wave of three teams - one went over to the west side in Hammond [La.], one to the Gulfport-Biloxi area and one to the Mobile area. In addition to operators, we would have maintenance and construction people. The maintenance people you really need right away, if the restaurant is operational but needs something fixed, like a piece of plywood put in the window ... . But the real heavy construction issues are not manageable right there. We had seven restaurants flattened on the beach in Biloxi and Gulfport.
Q: That must have been hard to see.
A: We'll rebuild them; get some new ones.
Q: How were you able to respond so quickly - especially when others couldn't?
A: Because we put assets right in the storm, our response time is faster. I think we had 10 generators that were being trailered in. And if you have generators, you have to have fuel. So you have fuel supplies. If you can find a Waffle House that is intact, then you go in and hook up the generators. You can always find a local electrician. You get a generator with some power. You either have good or bad water. We have water and ice [that we bring with us]. If you have power and good water you can make ice. If you have power and bad water you can't make ice. So we ship in water supplies and ice. We can open up a restaurant with power from the generator. We're on gas cooking. You need power, gas and a source of water ... .
Q: How do you know whether you need five generators or 10?
A: It's really what you can respond to manpower-wise. We couldn't, even if we had generators, have hooked up all the restaurants on [that] Tuesday. There wouldn't have been enough people to operate all the restaurants.
Q: What about food?
A: In terms of food and supplies, your initial source of food is [already there]. Remember you shut down all these restaurants, so the stuff in the freezer is still good for three or four days. It'll stay frozen. You have to make some command decisions at the front. We're not going to open those restaurants that are blown down. The restaurants that got flooded, the restaurants that are damaged and need repair - we're going to empty those restaurants of the food and take it to the ones we're going to open. Then, because we may be limited in the amount of power we have, and the water may be an issue, we go to an emergency menu - a much shorter menu.
Q: What's on the emergency menu?
A: It's basic breakfast sandwiches and breakfast. We don't schedule the omelettes because we don't know if we're going to be powering up the mixer. It's how do you want your scrambled eggs? If we don't have water for the dishwasher ... we use our paper supplies, our blackplastic plates and plastic silverware.
Q: Why do you make these rescue missions?
A: We are uniquely positioned as a 24-hour restaurant. We've gotten the emergency people at times to agree to let us operate 24 hours even when they have a curfew. We'll put a sign on the door and say this restaurant after curfew is for emergency personnel, relief workers.
Q: Why is it important to have your senior management on the scene?
A: [You need to be] face to face on the ground with somebody who can make a decision. One of the complications today - and you saw it, unfortunately, in New Orleans - is that you have all these levels of authority - local, state and national. And they all think they are in charge and the community can't do anything. We ran into that big-time, especially on the Louisiana side. In a crisis like this ... you know who your best responders are? The community, and that's who's being shut out of the game these days.
Q: How could the community have been involved?
A: If somebody in New Orleans had said the police and the National Guard are here to provide safety and security and we need the community to get in there to rescue these people. Guess who's got all the flat-bottomed boats in Louisiana? The fishermen. The community is the best first response. Rescuing people by helicopter? What a slow way to do things. Best to get all the boats in the water
Q: You find that people respond when you ask them to help?
A: I remember being there in Hammond. The district manager and unit manager showed up and they had on their shorts and T-shirts and were saying. "What are we going to do?" I said, "We're going to open this restaurant. We're going to feed these people. Y'all go get your uniforms on." The minute they put those uniforms on, their eyes changed. It's as if, "OK, we have something to do."
Q: What about employees of the restaurants that were destroyed?
A: We told everybody affected in this that everybody's guaranteed a job - management or hourly alike, even if you've moved to somewhere else and we have a Waffle House, you have a job ... you're on the payroll. We've got jobs for everybody. Fortunately the company financially is strong enough that we can make those kinds of commitments. Our franchisees are in a little more delicate situation. When we were in Beaumont, [Texas] one franchisee had all 10 of his restaurants affected by Rita. We went in there and reminded him, "We're going to go in there and take some muscle in there on our nickel; we're going to pay for this." But [we have to] be careful we don't stampede him into financial oblivion. It's his business and we've got to work with him. Finally that next afternoon he asked me: "How am I going to pay my management people?" I said, "It's called revenue. Let's get open."
Q: Why were your efforts effective?
A: Look at our leadership with operators, maintenance people to go in and support our local people - all of them are empowered to do what seems to make the most sense. They show up, look at the situation, figure out what their objectives are, then start going. Start getting food and supplies in. Figure out any special needs. We don't try to maintain totally centralized control; we try to have somebody sitting in the middle directing traffic. We try to make sure that at every one of these spots we've got leaders on the ground. They're not waiting around for me to tell them what to do. I'm just showing up doing things like the rest of them. The only difference is I get a little bit wider view of the whole thing.
Q: How long were you personally there?
A: I was there for three days, came back for a day and went back. I've been back every week, going to different spots, to see what they need. The story you see is a little different than the stories you hear. If we're not there looking at it, we're not going to do our best in terms of supporting and helping people.