When hurricanes, tornados, snowstorms or other natural disasters occur, restaurants can help bring a sense of normalcy to their communities. Establishing a disaster communication plan establishes you as a good corporate citizen and secures brand equity.

Such a plan helped Waffle House earn a 2012 Association's Operator Innovations Award. The plan, “Keeping Food Safe during Natural Disasters & Proactive Outreach to States,” is part of the company’s “Always Open” culture across its 1,700 locations in 25 states. Waffle House created relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After a storm, FEMA surveys the community using a “Waffle House index” as a way to measure devastated areas. Stores closed because of the storm are designated ground zero or red alert; those with a limited menu because of power and food shortages are considered yellow alert; and those with minimal damage and the ability to operate fully are designated green alert.

Here are five tips to help you plan ahead:

  • Connect with public officials when developing your disaster-preparedness plan. Waffle House executives reached out to regulatory and safety agencies in hurricane-prone states, including municipal and county officials.
  • Create a planning matrix. Waffle House created logistical tactics for various scenarios, such as three to five days before a hurricane, 48 hours out, 24 hours out and after landfall. For each stage, the plan identified store managers, operations executives, food safety/security teams and other stakeholders.
  • Create and distribute practical toolkits. Each Waffle House store manager receives a “storm playbook” that includes lessons learned and best practices, a unit-opening checklist, FDA food safety guidelines for re-opening after a storm, a service interruption and emergency checklist, and more.
  • Establish procedures for before and after the disaster. When a hurricane is imminent, Waffle House executives contact public health and safety officials in areas likely to be affected to resolve access issues. After a storm makes landfall, store managers must be available at all times to ensure food safety compliance and work with health inspectors before reopening.
  • Create a sound risk-based protocol. Your protocol should include preparation and mobilization tactics. Remember: Controlling risk should be your priority.