Waffle House’s hurricane response capabilities are legendary. The chain is known to keep its restaurants open amid horrific conditions, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency even measures the severity of a storm’s damage by the unofficial “Waffle House Index.”
But the severity of Hurricane Michael, which slammed the Gulf coast of Florida on Oct. 10 and was the strongest hurricane to strike the U.S. in almost 30 years, required the company to use a special card it keeps up its sleeve: the Waffle House truck.
Currently, the truck is in Panama City, Fla., handing out free food — the standard operating procedure when dispatched in an emergency.
According to Pat Warner, Waffle House’s spokesperson, Waffle House only has one truck, which is kept in Atlanta and used for catering. But if hurricane damage is bad enough, the company will send it out to fill in for a restaurant that simply cannot reopen.
— Waffle House (@WaffleHouse) October 16, 2018
“We’ve had the truck for five years but have only activated it twice,” said Warner, who noted the other time was for flooding in Baton Rouge, La., in August 2016. “If it’s a case where the restaurant is going to be out a while, and it’s an area where there’s no services for the people, we will bring it in.”
With Hurricane Michael, almost all 30 of the Waffle House locations that were hit managed to reopen quickly. But a few Waffle House locations around Panama City have too much structural damage. And the company sent the truck to park in front of the restaurant and handed out free food.
Spotted in Panama City: a Waffle House food truck serving hash brown bowls and waffles. pic.twitter.com/Od4qreIPXu
— Alan Blinder (@alanblinder) October 17, 2018
“We decided to send the truck down there to set up in front of one of our closed restaurants [until] Wednesday,” Warner said. “They’re driving up and we’re giving a couple meals to go.”
Hurricane Michael’s extremely fast onset and wind made it different than past hurricanes, Warner said.
“Florence seemed like it took forever, but this one really went from tropical storm to category 4 in a couple days, and then on shore,” said Warner. The type and nature of hurricanes matter significantly to anyone affected by a hurricane, and Waffle House faces different challenges depending on whether the damage is floods, wind, or both.
Whereas Florence and Harvey were flood-heavy, Michael was wind heavy, bringing power outages and tree damage, disrupting supply chains and water access. With water outages in Panama City, Waffle House had to truck in water to keep its locations open.
With the dust settled, Warner says that Waffle House is relieved there wasn’t more damage, and that all of its employees made it to safety.
“We can rebuild a restaurant,” he said. “That’s the easy move.”
Waffle House has around 2,100 restaurants in the southeast. As or Thursday, thousands of Floridians were still without power.