Waffle House’s Miss D (left) takes money from Daniel Bahena (right) after he and a guest dined in on Monday at a location on Clairmont Road in Brookhaven. Some restaurants in metro Atlanta began to reopen dining rooms as certain restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic were lifted. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Waffle House sees only ‘slight uptick’ after nearly a week of dine-in

Waffle House saw only a “slight uptick” in sales after nearly a week of being allowed to offer dining again inside hundreds of restaurants, the Norcross-based chain’s chief executive officer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday.

The restaurants previously were only allowed to offer takeout or delivery until governors in Georgia and Tennessee lifted some pandemic restrictions effective Monday. The tentative response from customers this week is part of why CEO Walt Ehmer said hundreds of additional Waffle House locations that were completely closed won’t reopen yet.

“We have certainly seen what I would describe as a slight uptick in our business.” he said. “We are not seeing a mad rush of customers coming into our restaurants.”

But the pace has met the chain’s expectations, he said. “It’s still early.”

“It is not a return to normal,” Ehmer said. “It is just a very small step forward … to find solutions that are going to be necessary to live in this time of crisis.”

“As Americans,” he said later, “we have go to find ways to move forward.”

Some public health officials have warned that more COVID-19 deaths are likely if government restrictions are eased too soon.

In March, Ehmer’s boss, Waffle House Chairman Joe Rogers Jr., had urged state officials not to enact a ban on in-restaurant dining, arguing the economic damage to businesses and workers would be out of proportion to the public health benefits. Rogers suggested that government leaders should instead require restaurants to enforce social distancing and safety measures.

By then, though, many restaurants had already closed or were contemplating doing so as anxious customers stayed home. Other restaurants were forced to shut after county and city governments enacted restrictions. Gov. Brian Kemp eventually ordered a statewide in-dining ban.

Ultimately, dine-in service ended across all 25 states where Waffle House has nearly 2,000 corporate and franchise restaurants. Already cratering sales fell even more, pushing hundreds of the chain’s locations to shut temporarily. Only 1,200 Waffle Houses are currently open, including 330 of the 400 scattered around Georgia.

Now, with the ban lifted in Georgia and parts of Tennessee, some of the small sales increase Waffle House has seen is simply from more people ordering takeout, Ehmer said.

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