How Waffle House turned a sleepy employee into a publicity win

Waffle House's comms team quickly cooked up a response to a customer manning the grill--and posting pics on social media--while an employee slept.

(Image via Alex Bowen's Facebook page).
(Image via Alex Bowen's Facebook page).

NORCROSS, GA: Late last Thursday, Waffle House PR director Pat Warner received an unusual phone call from a division manager.

The manager explained that a customer had cooked his own meal at a West Columbia, South Carolina, Waffle House after finding an employee asleep on the job—and the guest detailed the experience in a series of Facebook selfies.

Customer Alex Bowen reportedly jumped behind the counter to make his own meal after waiting 10 minutes for assistance to no avail. His social media chronicle of the experience has been liked and shared more than 5,000 times.

"Our first reaction was: how did this happen? [Division manager Mike Rogers] was on top of that, checking to see how this occurred, and he reached out to [Bowen]," said Warner. "We also wanted to make sure this actually did happen. Sometimes people post things on social media that aren’t always true."

Once Rogers confirmed the veracity of the incident, Warner realized it could be a negative story for the brand, prompting its social media, PR, and legal teams discussed the matter internally. All of Waffle House’s PR is conducted by in-house teams.

"We wanted to spin it in a fun way," Warner said. "The guy came in and cooked his meal, came back the next day, and paid; you can’t get too upset about that. Our senior leadership encourages us to have fun with the brand and the moment and play into it."

By Friday morning, media requests were flooding in. Before Warner left his driveway, he had requests from Good Morning America, Fox, ABC, Today, and local media. The story had also gone viral on social media.

Waffle House released a lighthearted statement that day.

"Our local division manager has spoken to [Bowen] and apologized. For safety reasons, our customers should never have to go behind the counter. Rather they should get a quality experience delivered by friendly associates," the brand stated.

It also offered Bowen a new opportunity: "In a related note, obviously he has some cooking skills, and we’d like to talk to him about a job since we may have something for him."

The company suspended the sleeping employee for one week.

On Monday, Waffle House sent media outlets a second statement explaining that the chain had apologized to Bowen and invited him back to the restaurant.

"We also promised him we’d do the cooking the next time," the statement said.

Warner explained that it was important for the brand to emphasize a message of safety because it "doesn’t want other customers to take it upon themselves" to jump behind the counter and make their own meals.

In the days after Bowen’s meal-making went viral, Warner has focused on responding to media outlets and social media users as quickly as possible.

"We decided to not do a lot on social about it, but if someone reached out to us through DM, we have gotten back to them," said Warner. "Our philosophy is that sometimes when a story [goes viral] on social, you don’t want to get in the middle of it. We wanted to keep this story organic and authentic."

The media is still interested. On Wednesday morning, Waffle House set up a segment with ABC Columbia that included its executives teaching Bowen how to cook properly.

Media coverage has been "fair" and customer reaction has been positive, Bowen added. People are having fun with the story and "thanking the company for having a sense of humor about it" on social media and Waffle House’s customer care lines, Warner said.

Waffle House is monitoring the conversation about the incident on social media and conducting internal communications. Its operations team is also determining whether the company should conduct training for associates.

Waffle House’s response has earned it the respect of crisis communicators. Flackable founder Brian Hart wrote a post for Inc.com contending Waffle House’s reaction was a "brilliant lesson in humility." Tucker Eskew, Vianovo partner and former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, praised the company’s "ace crisis reaction" on Twitter.

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