A community’s level of resilience during a disaster often relies on the preparedness efforts of its private sector partners. Companies that invest in preparing for and responding to large-scale events are protecting much more than just company profits. For example, the thought and design that went into one hamburger restaurant led to a companywide culture of safety and community service.
Whataburger was born from one man’s dream in 1950 when Harmon Dobson opened a small building selling burgers for just 25 cents in Corpus Christi, Texas. His idea was for someone to hold up the burger and think, “Wow, What-A-Burger.” The name has stuck, and the company has gone from one little shack to over 950 restaurants across 14 states. The orange and white colors and the iconic “A-frame” building came from the founder’s passion. Dobson was a pilot, and he wanted to be able to see his buildings as he flew overhead. The orange and white colors come from aviation; most airports use these colors to signify obstructions and buildings. The “A-frame” shape is also iconic, and a version of it is used in all new construction along with the flying “W.” In 2001, the 77th Texas Legislature officially designated Whataburger as a “Texas Treasure.”
Whataburger restaurants grew rapidly into many southern states, and most restaurants are open 24 hours. Executive leadership knew that issues and incidents would need to be handled through an elite team with emergency management and crisis response experience and expertise. In response, the company formed the Whataburger Command Center, which initially consisted of four individuals dedicated to identifying potential threats and incidents that could impact or threaten employees, customers, restaurants, or brand reputation. After COVID-19 emerged in the U.S. in March 2020 and several company re-organizations between 2020 and 2023, the team now has one senior manager and one professional running a high-level Command Center at the San Antonio, Texas, home office. This team uses multiple vendors and applications to help identify, analyze, and verify incoming information.
The Command Center uses a hybrid form of the Incident Command System, and its mission is to prepare for, identify, respond to, and recover from a crisis or an unexpected event that threatens the stability, reputation, or operations of the company’s employees, buildings, franchisees, and support departments. It involves a wide range of activities and strategies designed to mitigate the impact of the crisis and protect the interests of the company and its stakeholders. The main goal of the Command Center is to minimize damages and ensure the company’s survival and quick recovery after a planned or unplanned incident.
The Command Center’s preparedness initiative is to not only ensure each restaurant and operator is prepared to respond to a myriad of emergent incidents but also to ensure its staff and the Core team are educated on incidents around the U.S. that may or may not have an impact on the entire footprint. The Core team is comprised of key stakeholders from each support department and Operations. These individuals are empowered to represent their departments, make “on-the-spot” decisions, provide knowledge from their areas of expertise, and make or influence decisions that impact Operations and brand reputation. The team is dynamic, and not all members are used for every incident. The Command Center will determine which of the Core team members it will take to respond and recover from the incident.
The Command Center ensures that all restaurant management, field support teams, and each Core team member are prepared to deal with the myriad of incidents in the following ways:
- Operational and field teams are prepared through various platforms, including videos produced at the home office and provided to operators and field staff.
- Virtual training is offered to the regions that find it difficult and cost-prohibited to bring their entire team to one location.
- Quarterly training is available on a Teams call or provided by in-person training to restaurant teams as much as possible.
- Restaurant Operations and field support teams are kept abreast on all important information and updates through numerous daily email and text communications concerning upcoming severe weather, heat preparedness, hurricane preparedness, personal severe weather preparedness, and other issues that could impact the business or employees.
- A mass communication program is used daily, making it much easier to send multiple messages rapidly to the same group through templates.
Most threats to company restaurants across the 14-state layout come from mother nature. Torrential spring rains and tornados, severe winter storms, active tropical seasons, and other weather phenomena keep the Command Center team busy year-round. To help identify severe weather threats, the Command Center team uses two weather vendors – one for severe weather on land and one for tropical weather during hurricane season. Extreme weather impacts one or more restaurants across its 14-state enterprise every day, so getting that information out expeditiously to restaurants and field leaders is imperative.
Receiving severe weather reports from weather vendors through texts, emails, and vendor applications, the Command Center verifies the information before sending on to restaurants and field personnel. In the case of tornado warnings, restaurants go through a specific process, closing and securing the building for at least 30 minutes or until the threat no longer impacts the facility. If the threat is winter weather, the Command Center will send this information to restaurants as soon as possible so they can begin staff planning and product needs if roads are closed. Many lessons were learned from Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, but the most notable was to get information out early and often.
The Command Center also uses a tropical system weather vendor for threats from the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season. This vendor assists in identifying, analyzing, responding to, and recovering from tropical events that potentially impact coastal restaurants and employees. The tropical weather vendor provides the Command Center with daily assessments and forecasts of storms moving through the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf. When it is evident a storm is going to make landfall near a Whataburger restaurant, the vendor provides the team with tropical meteorologists on all conference calls to give all engaged departments and franchisees the latest information and forecast so preparations and proper closures can take place. This information is used to make the best company and restaurant safety decisions.
Weather is not the only potential threat or activity the Command Center monitors and assesses. Other activities include power and water outages, boil water advisories, technology outages, fires, protests, demonstrations, social media, employee health, vehicle strikes, drive-thru issues, robberies, employee safety/injuries, fights, food safety, and new restaurant openings. The company is also currently opening an average of one new restaurant per week. There is an enormous amount of time taken each day identifying and assessing each of these events to see how it will impact the safety of employees and customers and potentially impact the company’s brand reputation. Identifying threats across a wide area takes extraordinary threat intelligence.
The Command Center uses two threat intelligence vendors to receive clear vision and analysis of what occurs in and around restaurants, offices, learning centers, and Tier-1 suppliers. A quarter-mile circle is drawn around each of these locations. If any of these threats emerge in one of these circles, a notification is sent to the Command Center by email, text, app notification, and dashboard post. The information provided includes a brief description of the threat, the distance from the monitored location, the severity of the danger, when it occurred, and the ability to speak to an analyst to garner additional information about the incident. The team can then make decisions based on playbooks on who to engage, by what means, and how urgent this incident is to the business. It is imperative to be able to send the right information to the right people by the right means at the right time.
Strong leadership, clear and concise communication, and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances when responding to escalated incidents is what the Command Center provides on a daily basis. This concept depends most on trust and understanding from the restaurants and field support departments. These field teams know when they receive direction from the Command Center, it is the “Voice of Truth,” and they feel comfortable following the directions.
The Command Center has 24 incident playbooks, which are step-by-step plans that outline the tasks and procedures each department will perform when responding to a specific incident. The tasks and procedures are updated annually and after each incident. Along with the playbooks is a communications matrix that outlines who the team communicates with, by what means, and how often. Response teams also use lists, checklists, and logs. Most major responses, such as hurricanes, are divided into phases, and procedures performed by each team depend on which phase of the incident.
The priority once the incident has concluded is employee and customer safety. Whataburger goes to great lengths to ensure all employees have time to recover personally. Once the Command Center team knows the staff is ready, they use the recovery process to restore restaurants and the business to normal operations and hours, address residual restaurant or field team issues and unmet needs, and ensure all employees are recovering. The Whataburger Family Foundation addresses any employees’ needs. The quicker the restaurant can recover, the sooner the company and its resources can assist the community in recovery.
Through it all, Whataburger remains committed to investing in the communities they serve. Its marketing and public relations teams will infiltrate the impacted area to assess how the company can fill voids or feed recovery teams and first responders after a critical event and meet the community’s needs. Whataburger uses its food truck and volunteers to help communities in need by raising money for the community or feeding families in their time of need.
As the final recovery process, after all employees, customers, and communities fully recover, the Command Center will facilitate an after-action review, including lessons learned, best practices, and opportunities for improvement. These ideas and concepts are used to update all playbooks and task lists each department uses when responding to an escalated incident. This learned information is sent out again months later to ensure each team has addressed all issues.
Ron Derrick serves as the senior emergency manager at the Whataburger Command Center and oversees the daily operation of the Command Center and its staff. Ron spent over 30 years in fire and emergency medical services (EMS) and has been in emergency management since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from Jacksonville State University. Ron spent more than 20 years in the Kerrville Fire Department and Fredericksburg Fire and EMS and another six years as the operations manager for South-Central Texas for Acadian Ambulance Service. After a long fire and EMS career, he spent five years as the regional director of safety and emergency management for the Baptist Health System in San Antonio and six years as a senior controller in the USAA Command Center before taking his current position at Whataburger over five years ago. Ron is a Certified Business Continuity Professional and a certified State of Texas Pyrotechnic Operator. He has been a speaker at numerous conferences, including the TEEX Leadership Development Symposium and the Texas Division of Emergency Management Conference.