Waffle House closes more than 400 locations due to COVID-19, largest number in company history

Waffle House index at code red

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Across the country, 418 Waffle House locations are closed because of COVID-19.

The previous record holder for closed Waffle House locations was during Hurricane Katrina, where 130 locations were closed.

That’s according to the Waffle House CEO, Walt Ehmer, who was in Charlotte Wednesday checking on locations that were still open.

The company prides itself on keeping its doors open during natural disasters to help feed first responders and medical staff.

So much in fact, FEMA uses what they call the "Waffle House Index’ to measure the damage to a community after a hurricane. In short, if Waffle Houses are closed, it’s not a good sign.

“You know, Waffle House is an indicator of when things are not going well. We have more than 420 restaurants closed on right now," said Ehmer.

But things are different because of COVID-19.

Ehmer says he’s concerned because of the virus but also its potential impacts on the economy. He fears many big businesses are in danger of closing its doors forever.

“I tell you its been unlike anything we’ve had to deal with,” he said.

He said Waffle House will be able to weather the storm. But he says they have been forced to close some stores because there aren’t enough customers ordering to go.

“We don’t have enough business to support the people who work here and the bills we have to pay," he said. “Our front line workers are being decimated by this.”

He worries businesses and employees won’t bounce back after restrictions across the country are lifted.

“A lot of people think we’ll just turn the switch back on 30 days from now. A lot of businesses won’t come back, restaurants won’t come back, hotels wont come back," he said. "Jobs won’t come back and when jobs don’t come back, there’s another public health crisis coming down the road.”

Waffle House employees are pros at weathering the storm, but he says they've never faced a storm like this one.

“My concern is for our folks. I want to get restaurants opens to get their jobs back to get their opportunity back," he said. “We’re doing everything we can to give them as many hours, to help pay them as much as we possibly can.”

But he says revenue is down 70%. He’s hoping leaders dial back restrictions to try and find balance.

“I’d be happy to accommodate significant social distancing in the restaurants and let people feel a little bit normal again. And they can be safe, this is the safest place to be right now. There’s nobody in there," he said.

Waffle House is following any orders and restriction put in place in the county or state.

Ehmer was in Charlotte checking on locations, trying to keep as many locations open as possible to pay their employees.

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