Waffle House CEO on reopening restaurants amid coronavirus pandemic: 'We’re almost back to full capacity'

Less than 20 Waffle House restaurants remain closed, Walt Ehmer says

Walt Ehmer, Waffle House president & CEO, told “Varney & Co.” on Tuesday that most of the restaurants that were closed during the coronavirus pandemic due to stay-at-home orders in an effort to slow the spread have reopened.

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“At our peak, we had about 750 restaurants closed,” Ehmer said in the exclusive interview. “We’re down to less than 20.”

He went on to say that he thinks “there will be a few, maybe a handful that we never bring back, but for the most part, we’re almost back to full capacity from a location standpoint.”

Ehmer also said on Tuesday that every day “thousands upon thousands of folks are coming in and feeling safe and reconnecting with the people that serve them” at Waffle House restaurants.

When asked if he has seen a difference in consumer behavior since the pandemic began Ehmer said, “I think we benefit more than some restaurants because they call these ‘family restaurants.’”

“We have a lot of regular customers and they’re very comfortable coming back to eating with people that they know well, in our little kind of intimate environment,” he continued.

Ehmer did, however, acknowledge that there have been "some shifts” in customer behavior.

“People are taking more food to go than they were in the past,” he explained, adding that there has been “a lot more" curbside pickup.

Ehmer said that “certainly business hasn’t returned all the way to normal.”

“Even though we’ve opened up almost all of our restaurants, we still have several of them that are not open 24 hours, which is really foreign for us. We’re not used to that,” he continued.

Host Stuart Varney pointed to a “key metric” in the restaurant industry, average check size, and asked Ehmer if he was “prepared to share” whether Waffle House’s average check size is now “up or down from the pre-pandemic days.”

“I would love to tell you we’re sophisticated enough that we track that. If you have ever been in a Waffle House, everything is done by hand,” Ehmer said in response. He added that “we’ve got some approximations.”

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“I think our average check size hasn’t changed much,” Ehmer said, acknowledging that “it might get skewed a little bit by the to-go orders because people, when they order to go, are typically bringing it back for a group of people versus coming in and eating with just a couple of people.”

“I would say, by and large our check average is about the same,” he went on to say.

Varney also asked Ehmer if there are any changes to the Waffle House menu due to the pandemic.

“We’ve simplified just a little bit,” he said in response. “We try to steer people to fewer items so we can cook them faster, but our menu was pretty limited going into the pandemic so no major changes.”

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“You can still get pretty much everything you were looking for pre-pandemic, post-pandemic now,” he continued. “We might not feature it as well so you might have to ask about it and know about it, a little bit like a secret menu I guess.”