Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 'Waffle House Index' (Update: Walmart Index)

There's an old saying in the South: “Another day, another Waffle House robbery." Or, in the words of one blogger, "Waffle House is home of cheap coffee, cheap women, and the lowest ratio of working bathrooms in the continental United States."

I don't know anything about the character of the ladies to be found in Waffle Houses but it's a popular franchise whether or not the plumbing works. Eighteen of these iconic breakfast places with the yellow roof and block-lettered yellow sign were robbed across the South in the summer just past, mainly in Georgia (where the chain started) and Alabama. Two men (currently awaiting trial in Alabama) would enter a restaurant, place a to-go order, and pull a gun when the food came. It isn't clear whether it was because they'd eaten the food, nor exactly why thieves seem drawn to the brand, which has been receiving more such philanthropic demands than other similar restaurant chains in the South, like IHOP, Denny's, Bob Evans or Shoney's.  It seems probable they're not coming in to use the bathroom and then robbing the place as an afterthought.

 'Don't Flush'

All-night restaurants are a pretty obvious target for hard-timers and heist artists - they're open into the wee hours when lots of folks aren't navigating too well or thinking clearly; they can take in a good amount of cash business in the course of a day; they sell things like fried eggs and grits that Southerners seem to want badly enough to steal for; and (in Georgia particularly) nearly every interstate exit has an easy hit-and-run Waffle House right near the on-ramp. I guess you could say it's a sign of hard times.

In  fact, the Waffle House enterprise has become one of the more reliable economic indicators - the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in a recent "FEMA Blog" post, explains why the "Waffle House Index" provides sound emergency and risk assessment data for decision making in disaster areas: "[M]ajor companies such as . . . Waffle House serve as role models in disaster preparedness. . . . These companies have good risk management plans to ensure that their stores continue to operate when a disaster strikes. . ." 

The disaster and risk index works like this: "If a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a limited menu, it’s yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red. Because Waffle House is well prepared for disasters… it’s rare for the index to hit red."

The Waffle House has of late become a significant part of the heartland's Cultural Space, much as the court and cathedral once were in medieval Europe, or as the corporate boardroom in today's America. Plans are hatched, ideas traded, policy hammered out, dreams dreamed and alter egos altered in the nation's Waffle Houses. To cite but a few recent instances:
  • Last month, Florida lawmaker Brad Drake announced that he is "sick and tired of this sensitivity movement for criminals" and promptly introduced a bill in the Florida legislative session that would end the state's practice of execution by lethal injection and replace it with the electric chair or, at the inmate's request, a firing squad. Drake, a marketing executive elected to the state house in 2008, got the idea after chatting with a "fed-up voter" at a Waffle House in his district.
  • Four elderly men — bespectacled and so hard of hearing that they strained to hear a federal judge at their initial court appearances in Gainesville, Ga. — are accused of conspiracy and may be linked to a loose association of fringe militia groups targeting federal and local government buildings for bombings. The New York Times reports that "At the Waffle House here, no one can believe that the gray-haired men who came in almost daily for egg sandwiches and coffee could have been terrorists plotting to blow up government buildings and kill masses of people using poison from a bean plant that people in this rural part of the state grow to ward off moles."
  • Two weeks ago, Sara Jean Rusher, 52, was arrested by U.S. marshals at a Waffle House on Peach Orchard Road, Augusta, GA, having been on the lam for 17 years.
  • A cross-dressing bank robber in Marietta, GA has thus far evaded police, but was spotted on surveillance video this month eating at a Waffle House.  
 "So would it kill you to wear pants when we come here?"

Maybe this is all purely coincidental. Or maybe it's another instance of the "magnet syndrome," like tornadoes and trailer parks, or like overloaded Filipino buses and ravines. 

Still, one wonders how these various risk assessment indices are concocted. Clearly the agency experts charged with grading our relative danger levels make no allowances for personal exigencies. Full menu or not, eating a hearty breakfast in a Waffle House when the plumbing is dodgy could be 'code red' in anyone's private index of "Emergencies That Keep Me Awake at Night."

November 30: Harper's Magazine reports in its online "Weekly Review" that "In the course of Black Friday sales across the United States, police knocked a grandfather unconscious at a Walmart in Arizona and tasered a man at a Walmart in Alabama; an off-duty police officer pepper-sprayed unruly shoppers at a Walmart in North Carolina; a woman pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers to get to a discounted Xbox 360 at a Walmart in California; and customers rioted over $2 waffle irons at a Walmart in Arkansas."  8 9 10 11 12 

It's no stretch to suggest to the relevant federal agencies that in addition to the "Waffle House Index" there may be a "Walmart Index of Consumer Economic Indicators." The index would be calculated on several variables such as number and distribution of violent consumer-on-consumer incidents at national Walmarts, numbers of consumers involved in each such, total value of all items whose ownership is in dispute, severity of consumer-on-consumer retaliation, severity of police or security response.

Based on this year's index readings, the economy is springing back and consumer spending should carry retailers over the 2011 hump.

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