An unusual experiment is unfolding in Tennessee, where the state’s Department of Transportation just allocated the first round of federal funding for new electric vehicle charging stations. As expected, practically all of the new stations will be located at gas stations with retail food outlets, where drivers can grab a bite to eat while they charge up. But there is one outlier. A lone Waffle House represents the only standalone restaurant, and practically the only non-gas station site, in the entire allocation. So, what makes Waffle House so special?
What’s so special about Waffle House?
The inclusion of Waffle House in the Tennessee EV charging station program is all the more impressive because competition for the installation contracts was fierce. Only 30 new charging stations are planned for the first round of buildout, but the state Department of Transportation received applications for contracts covering 167 different locations.
The department ultimately awarded contracts to 10 charging station installers based on a long list of requirements for the charging stations and their proposed locations. The Georgia EV charging station firm EnviroSpark was one of the 10 contract awardees, and it will partner with Waffle House to install four fast chargers at a location in Lakeland, about 25 miles outside Memphis.
“Like all Waffle House locations, the restaurant at 9780 U.S. Highway 64 in Lakeland is open 24/7,” according to EnviroSpark, noting that around-the-clock operation is one of the requirements to receive funding under the federal National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program.
Waffle House did not issue a press statement to mark the occasion, but EnviroSpark hailed: “Waffle House, a culinary icon of the South, and famous for its commitment to customer satisfaction and community engagement, is embracing the opportunity to contribute to the green energy movement.”
The importance of community engagement
The idea of Waffle House “embracing the opportunity to contribute to the green energy movement” is a long time coming. Unlike other chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks, for example, Waffle House has refrained from applying renewable energy or sustainable building standards to its public profile.
Nevertheless, Waffle House is in a position to make a significant contribution to the zero-emission transportation trend. In addition to fulfilling the requirements for federal funding, Waffle House has acquired a reputation as a trusted center of community engagement, and EnviroSpark already hinted that the Lakeland EV charging stations will be the first in a series of partnerships with Waffle House.
Waffle House has worked to create an open door, all-are-welcome atmosphere that aligns with EnviroSpark’s approach to the EV charging station market. The company says it operates under two missions — "to raise awareness around the benefits of electric vehicles and to build a more robust EV charging infrastructure" — and seeks to address "the pain points of property owners and drivers by enhancing EV accessibility in customer-friendly ways."
Community resilience and the EV connection
Perhaps the most widely known element of Waffle House’s community commitment is its policy of staying open or re-opening as soon as possible after a natural disaster or other catastrophe strikes. The policy includes reverting to a limited menu if necessary to ensure that first responders and residents can get shelter and a hot meal. The company also operates its own fully staffed storm center out of its headquarters in Norcross, Georgia, to help its restaurants prepare.
Waffle House sees its restaurants as a "welcoming beacon after a storm or other natural disaster,” the company states. “Our goal is to get open quickly so we can serve our communities in their time of need. Many customers have had their first hot meal and experienced their first sense of normalcy and comfort after a storm because we were open for them. Our immediate involvement during these difficult times is an extension of our commitment to serving our communities 24/7, especially when they need us the most."
The details of the company’s disaster plans are so meticulous that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses a “Waffle House Index” to rate the impact of a storm on community resources.
“The index has been used to predict how severely weather will affect an area's accessibility to food, water and essential resources,” USA Today reported in August when Hurricane Idalia was bearing down on Florida. “When the Waffle House turns the lights off, it's bad."
Warning signs on climate change
As a corollary to USA Today’s reporting, one might say that when Waffle House decides to support vehicle electrification, something is afoot.
The EV charging partnership with EnviroSpark seems to be the first noteworthy decarbonization step undertaken by Waffle House since 2010 when the media covered a new solar panel installation at a Waffle House in Norcross, Georgia.
Considering the Waffle House focus on storm tracking, recovery and resiliency, the company might be starting to make the connection between its weather know-how and climate science. That remains to be seen, but vehicle electrification is a good start.
With approximately 2,000 locations across the southeastern U.S. and a solid reputation for community engagement, Waffle House could become a leading ambassador for the transition from fossil energy to zero-emission transportation.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.