Waffle House CEO slams lockdowns, as restaurant owners fight a new wave of orders shutting down indoor dining

  • Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer slammed lockdowns and orders forcing indoor dining to close in an interview with Business Insider. 
  • "The people making the decisions are not paying the same price that the workers in this country are paying," Ehmer added. "We're trying to provide reliable careers and jobs for people." 
  • The National Restaurant Association is fighting against studies linking the spread of coronavirus to restaurants. 
  • Infectious disease expert Jaimie Meyer says that there is ample evidence that indoor dining is a high-risk activity and that lockdowns can be a crucial tool in areas where community spread is on the rise. 
  • "It would be worse to keep open and keep forging ahead while people are dying left, right, and center of a disease that's totally preventable," Meyer said. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As COVID cases surge across the US, Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer does not want to shut down indoor dining. And, he really does not want the government to force him to do so. 

"A lockdown is going to put a lot of people out of work," Ehmer told Business Insider. "It's really not about the business — it's about the people. These people have jobs, they have livelihoods, they need to take care of their families." 

All but two of Waffle House's 1,920 locations across America are currently serving food indoors. While roughly 700 Waffle House locations temporarily shuttered during early pandemic lockdowns, putting 28,000 hourly workers out of a job, only 20 remain closed today. 

"The only reason we think that we would shut a dining room down at this point is if the local government made us do so," Ehmer said. 

When Business Insider interviewed Ehmer via Zoom on Tuesday, the CEO was in the back room of a Memphis Waffle House, wearing the same uniform polo as restaurant workers. He and other senior management have mostly avoided Zoom, instead continuing to meet face-to-face and visit "four or five or six or seven" restaurants every day. Ehmer said these trips are a chance to monitor safety, as well as work alongside employees (though he admits he is not as fast on the grill as he once was). 

"The true way to solve a crisis is to go stand in the middle of it, and figure out how to take care of people and figure out how to help put things back together," Ehmer said. "That does not change regardless of what the crisis is." 

Waffle House knows crises. The chain is so dependable that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses it to track the severity of natural disasters. Even during the pandemic, Waffle House has been working with FEMA, state health departments, and emergency response teams to respond to hurricanes that have battered the US. 

But, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis like no other. Many experts believe restaurants could be contributing to the spread of the virus. Despite that fact, Waffle House is staying open.

Read more: The pandemic is permanently changing fast food as Wendy's, Burger King, and Chipotle double down on high-tech drive-thrus

Politicians 'never have their own livelihood impacted' in lockdowns

Experts have warned that eating at restaurants can be risky during the pandemic, as the coronavirus travels best among people who are indoors, unmasked, for an extended period of time.

A recent study published in Nature used cellphone data to determine that restaurants were among the riskiest "superspreader" locations. Another study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who tested positive for COVID were twice as likely to say they had eaten at a restaurant in the last 14 days.

As a result, many cities and states are looking to shut down indoor dining. Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco are among the cities shutting indoor dining back down. Washington and Michigan are planning to ban indoor dining across the states, though restaurants in Michigan have sued to prevent the new order. 

"I feel awful for restaurateurs, honestly, because economically times are really tough and I understand the public health restrictions are making it that much harder," Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, said. "However, there is an abundance of data that suggests that dining indoors is a high-risk activity." 

Ehmer, meanwhile, argues lockdowns ultimately hurt workers. Politicians might speak about sacrifices, he says, but they are not among the millions of restaurant workers who have lost their jobs in the pandemic. 

"None of the people who make the decisions to shut down businesses and impact people's livelihoods ever have their own livelihood impacted," Ehmer said.

"The people making the decisions are not paying the same price that the workers in this country are paying," Ehmer added. "We're trying to provide reliable careers and jobs for people. … We work side by side with folks. I'm not going to work in an unsafe environment and I'm not going to let our folks work in an unsafe environment."

Waffle House says there has not been a single instance of COVID spreading in its restaurants

Ehmer emphasizes that Waffle House has made extensive changes since the pandemic began. Menus have been swapped for QR codes. Restaurants require masks and social distancing. In some locations, barriers have been installed between booths. Others have stopped serving diners late at night, switching to take-out only. Waffle House doesn't have the booming drive-thru business of fast-food rivals, but it has beefed up its to-go business, as well as offering online orders and selling groceries for the first time. 

Waffle House already had some built-in advantages over other restaurants going into the pandemic. Dining rooms cannot accommodate large parties. Restaurants have superior ventilation due to the open kitchen. Customers are less likely to linger over hash browns than a gourmet meal at a fine-dining establishment. 

Workers get screened for illness every shift and Waffle House created its own contact tracing system. Ehmer says the company provides paid time off and has been paying employees to quarantine if they may be exposed to the coronavirus. Almost every day, Waffle House's director of food safety Larry Sigler is coordinating quarantine plans for a new worker. 

Ehmer says the chain's strategy is working, and that there has not been a single documented instance of COVID spreading at a Waffle House location, including between employees. Customers trust Waffle House and continue to visit the chain.

"While the virus is surging in terms of number of cases, we haven't felt a tremendous impact to the business at this point," Ehmer said. 

In Meyer's view, though, Waffle House's precautions are not enough in areas where COVID cases are spiking. Meyer acknowledges that transition rates are not uniform and that precautions reduce risks. But, she says, indoor dining of all kinds is a higher risk. Shutting it down can be a crucial tool to prevent the continuing COVID surge. 

"Shutting down dining, with lots of other mitigation measures in place, is necessary sometimes when there are high levels of disease transmission in a community," Meyer said. "I'm not saying that we should be shutting down restaurants everywhere all the time. I think you have to do things in your community that are supported by the data."

Some Waffle House workers have also expressed worries about the situation. Multiple employees told Eater in May that they were concerned about returning to work indoors, with some saying the company failed to support them in the early days of the pandemic when sales plummeted by 70% to 80% across the chain. 

Many restaurant owners are taking a stand against lockdowns

Ultimately, the argument against lockdowns is an economic one. The wave of bankruptcies show that many restaurants — large or small — do not have the cash on hand to keep paying workers when sales plummet with dining restrictions. Ehmer and the rest of Waffle House senior management slashed their pay from 50% to 60% early in the pandemic. The company reduced wages from managers down to grill cooks, who took a $1 pay cut. Servers' lost hours as indoor dining closed and demand dried up. 

Workers' salaries have been restored and 95% of Waffle House employees are back on the job. But, if restaurants shut down, Ehmer says workers will suffer. While there have been proposals to pay restaurants to stay closed and keep workers on payroll, Ehmer is skeptical. 

"The stimulus helped a lot of restaurants and more importantly a lot of people early on," Ehmer said. "But, what you can't value enough is someone's peace of mind and security that they have a job that they can count on. … Governments can't replace all of the salaries in the economy that you want to shut down. We've got to find safe ways to move forward."

Ehmer isn't the only one in the restaurant industry making this argument. The National Restaurant Association sent a letter to the National Governors Association this week, arguing it has not "found any systemic outbreaks of COVID-19 from the hundreds of thousands of restaurants" following health and safety guidelines. 

"Tens of thousands of additional restaurant bankruptcies — and millions of lost jobs — are now more likely, while the science remains inconclusive on whether any health benefits will accrue," the letter reads. 

Meyer says that it is difficult for coronavirus outbreaks to be tracked. If someone has visited a restaurant in the last two weeks, it is likely they visited more than one. Figuring out exactly how someone contacted COVID is a challenge, especially without national contact tracing efforts. But, the evidence available does point to indoor dining as a high-risk activity. 

"We have to do in the short term what is painful, economically, so that long term, we have a country to go back to — kind of short-term pain for long-term gain," Meyer said. "It would be worse to keep open and keep forging ahead while people are dying left, right, and center of a disease that's totally preventable." 

Ehmer and many other restaurant owners remain convinced that lockdowns are a one-size-fits-all solution that fail to take people's lives and livelihoods into consideration. 

"Even though there's Zoom calls, and emails, and texts, and social media, and Amazon dropping stuff at your door, people crave being together," Ehmer said. "They can come into our restaurants and, even in the midst of a crisis, for a moment have a sense of normalcy. That is when we feel like we've done our job." 

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