As Irma smashes Georgia, Atlanta gets taste of Waffle House Index

It’s open for holidays, during epic storms and disastrous floods. So when Hurricane Irma’s remnants struck the heart of Atlanta, it was fitting that the Waffle House smack in the middle of its hometown was teeming with customers.

“I think if I eat another waffle, I’m going to turn into a waffle,” said Lauren Seyranian, a 21-year-old student who loaded up on carbs before heading back to her downtown hotel.

She and her boyfriend and his sister passed by streets filled with shuttered restaurants and closed-down fast-food joints and saw the Waffle House across the street from Centennial Park as a “last resort” that quickly became their restaurant of refuge.

“I don’t mind the rain,” said Seyranian, who made an 18-hour journey to Atlanta last week to flee the coming storm. “But we’re not used to every store being closed.”

The restaurant was packed Monday afternoon with evacuees, local workers and a half-dozen employees who watched gusting winds and torrents pummel downtown streets from the rain-streaked windows.

“I knew Waffle House was going to be open,” said Maleenah Levine, a 26-year-old who works in the beverage industry. “Of course they are. They’re open at Christmas.”

The Atlanta-based chain has proved so resilient in times of crisis that the federal government uses what it calls a Waffle House Index as a gauge for how well an area will recover from threatening weather.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency wrote in a 2011 blog, the index shows not just how a business rebounds but "how the larger community is faring."

Waffle House said 76 of its stores closed shop in Florida and seven in Georgia shut their doors as Irma approached. But that meant dozens more across Georgia remained open. And there was a ready customer base.

“I’ve ridden my bike in a Category 1 hurricane. This is not a big deal,” said Dan Tan, a third-year law student chowing down in a booth near the back of the restaurant. “I don’t know why people are so bent out of shape, but everything was closed. Except the Waffle House.”

Tan, a New Orleans native, joked that something nefarious was going on: “If you told me this was a giant conspiracy for the grocery stores to get rid of water supplies, I’d believe it.”

He was sitting with Raymond Tran, a classmate from California who is something of a hurricane novice.

“I’m all about being safe rather than sorry,” Tran said. “But Atlantans are panicking. People are freaking out, and I don’t know if it’s for good reason.”

Seyranian said she had no regrets about leaving Miami only to get battered by the remnants of Irma, confiding that she enjoyed visiting the Georgia Aquarium and other attractions on what she called her “evac-cation.”

And when she left the Waffle House with a bundle of plastic bags filled with to-go orders for her boyfriend’s family, she noted that she probably won’t be gone long.

“We are going to switch it up for dinner tonight when we come back,” she said. “Instead of waffles we’re having burgers.”