What Corporate America can learn from Waffle House

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“It is indeed marvelous. An irony free zone where everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts. Where everybody regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of any variation is welcomed. Its warm yellow glow—a beacon of hope and salvation—inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the south to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment. It never closes. It is always, always faithful. Always there for you.”

– Anthony Bourdain

You know the one. Waffle House, although modest in appearance, is a monolith of brand loyalty, corporate consistency and cult-like adoration. Its humble story stems from the likes of a tire shop building. But today, the neighborhoods that glow in its shadow have such entrenched consistency of place that they can be charted like the stars.

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Know (and own) your lane

Their secret sauce—other than what dark secrets lie in their crack-cocaine batter—is the very place they plant their iconic open grills and grinning cooks who tend them. Sit down at the counter and you’ll be welcomed by the miraculously pleasant cacophony of scents: Kraft singles, maple syrup and Marlboro Reds.

Peer outside the window and a trail of trucks drudging on in the night are sure to be passing by. Waffle House consistently builds its approximately 2,000 square feet brick sites across the Interstate exits, ready to welcome any weary travelers or locals to their home away from home.

“One supreme test of whether it’s a good location—take a real rainy, blistery Tuesday or Wednesday night at two o’clock in the morning, park your automobile there and see how many cars pass. If you don’t have many cars, you don’t have a good spot.”

– Tom Forkner, Waffle House Co-founder

Set an impeccable standard

On a booze-laden night, the menu boasts price tags that bear little burden in an evening of costly choices. The restroom is clean enough to rest your head on the cool tile if the sink beings to spin again. And perhaps most importantly, the hot plate back at the booth is served with just enough salt and starch to fill the light back into the black of your mind that you can catch a glimmer of the grill cook’s kind eyes.

The ever presence of Waffle House’s glow is so perpetually unfailing that its rare, but sometimes necessary, closure has been informally measured by FEMA. Deemed the Waffle House Index, the yellow lights along the highway turn off so infrequently that Waffle House’s phased-closure protocol is utilized as a metric to determine the wake of an impending or passing storm.

The Waffle House index not only helps FEMA understand risk management and foresee business recovery, but it also illuminates how the community-at-large might fare from a treacherous storm.

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“If you get there and Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad…” – Craig Fugate, Former Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Create sacred rituals

Its code language, spoken most from its devoted followers, can be heard only once stepping upon the checkered floors. Scattered. Smothered. Covered. Chunked. Diced. Peppered. Capped. Country. Or, the most daring words of them all, “I’ll have it all the way.”

The rituals created here, stay here. The words spoken inside lose all meaning once the check has been cashed and the door closed.

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Cultivate culture at every level

No matter the paygrade, employees begin with a broom in one hand and a spatula in the other. Because Waffle House believes that if employees have never smothered a cheeseburger or swept away the cigarette ash themselves, how can they possibly tell someone else to? Even managers train for a full six- to eight-weeks on the floor.

“At Waffle House, everybody talks to everybody.”

– Joe Rogers Sr., Waffle House Co-founder

And because not all lessons can be learned in the hash ring, managers also undergo a week-long stint at Waffle House University in Norcross for acquiring the softer skills, such as a three-hour class on bringing out the best in others.

Because at the business core is an infectious southern charm that can only be felt in its warm, yellow glow.

Kelsey Becker