Q: So, I’m stumped, and I hope you can help clear things up for me. Whataburger took a lot of Texans by surprise a while back when a Chicago-based investment firm bought a majority stake in the Lone Star State’s favorite burger chain. While Whataburger remains based in San Antonio, some Texans, I’m sure, worry that a bunch of “Yankee” folks are now calling the shots. Whoever’s in charge, I’m wondering how Whataburger can claim that it’s still “family owned and operated,” as it does on its to-go bags and website. Sure, Whataburger was “family owned and operated” and that family, the Dobson family, retains a minority stake in the company, but how can they maintain that assertion now?
John Egan, Austin
A: Before the Texanist gets to your question, Mr. Egan, let him take a minute to applaud the eagle-eyed attention to detail from which it sprang. The Texanist confesses that he is not himself always a reader of the fine print—especially the fine print that appears on greasy to-go bags from fast-food joints, even beloved fast-food joints. When it comes to such vessels the Texanist is much more interested in what’s inside of the bag than what might be written on its outside. So, once more, good for you.
The Texanist is, of course, no stranger to Whataburger, having grown up on the tasty offerings that came out of the old-school orange-and-white-striped A-frame located on West Avenue M, in Temple—right there next to the old Jack ’N’ Jill Donuts and Kolaches and across the street from the old Clem Mikeska’s Pit Bar-B-Q. The A-frame still stands today, although it now houses a different family owned and operated burger outfit, Rylander’s Best Hamburgers, which really and indisputably is family owned and operated. Jack ’N’ Jill and Clem are still there, too.
Whataburger’s seventy-plus-year history has been told many times, and your letter makes the Texanist feels confident that you are quite familiar with it. Still, for the benefit of readers who may be less conversant with the fast-food chain’s backstory, he will offer a thumbnail refresher. To wit: Founder Harmon Dobson opened his very first Whataburger in Corpus Christi in 1950 and it was an instant hit. By 1960, he had opened nearly twenty more, including locations in Florida and Tennessee. His expansion plans continued, as new locations and new menu items—french fries and hot pies—continued to spring up. The sixties saw the emergence of still more Whataburgers—many of them franchises—as well as those signature orange and white A-frame buildings, the first of which, by the way, appeared in Odessa in 1962.
After Dobson was killed in an airplane crash in 1967, his widow, Grace, continued to expand the company’s footprint. By 1980, Whataburger had more than two hundred locations across twelve states and country music star Mel Tillis as a spokesperson. And by 1990 it had doubled that number yet again and added other menu items, including those famous breakfast taquitos.
As time has marched on, so has Whataburger, while remaining ineluctably Whataburger, despite minor adjustments here and there and a 2009 move of headquarters from Corpus Christi to San Antonio. That was the case until June 2019, when the Dobsons’ three offspring (Grace passed away in 2005, having already handed over the company to her son, Tom) decided to sell their majority stake in the company’s eight-hundred-plus outlets to that Chicago-based investment firm, which did indeed cause quite a splash amongst Whataburger devotees.
The Texanist apologizes for this historical discursion, but he was laying the groundwork for a couple of pertinent points. First, he would like to note that the three members of the Dobson family who sold their stake saw fit to retain at least some ownership of the company, which arguably makes the “family owned” portion of the legend that appears on Whataburger bags legitimate, or at least semi-legitimate, or at least semi-hemi-demi-legitimate. And, second, Whataburger has long referred to its employees as—wait for it—“family members.” So, since every Whataburger is operated on a daily basis by “family members” . . . well, you see where the Texanist is heading.
Yes, the Texanist, a man frequently accused of being something of a homer—a title he proudly embraces—has been somewhat generous in his rulings here, all but turning a blind eye to the realities of the situation. But, sensitive to the accusation that he is little more than an armchair booster of all things Texan (even if they’re now Texan-by-way-of-Chicago), the Texanist decided to get out in the field and partake in a little old-fashioned reportage. And so, one fine December afternoon, he visited a Whataburger not at all far from his home and ordered his usual, a double-meat, double-cheese with jalapeño, fries, and a Dr Pepper. (Sometimes, depending on his mood, the Texanist will go with a Dr Pepper shake, but on this day he opted for regular Dr Pepper.) Yet rather than simply gobbling down the grub he was served, as he has done countless times in the past, the Texanist paid close, rapturous attention to the food before him. And then, not long after, to the food inside of him.
Here is what the Texanist discovered: The yellowy-orange-paper-wrapped ideal of a fast-food burger was sublime, the bun toasty yet supple, the patties perfectly spiced, the veggies fresh, the cheese velvety, and the mustard tangy. The fries were salty, crispy, and delicious. The ketchup was fancy and the Dr Pepper was Dr Pepper. Everything seemed to be pretty much just as it was before the 2019 transaction that placed the majority of the beloved Texas chain in the hands of the moneymen from the Windy City. If Whataburger isn’t, by some folks’ assessment, “family owned and operated” anymore, it’s sure doing a pretty good job of maintaining the Dobson family’s traditions of ownership and operation. Which, from the Texanist’s belly’s point of view, is what matters most. Besides, “Chicago-based investment firm owned and employee operated” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The Texanist is satisfied that Whataburger remains, in spirit at least, a family owned and operated institution, and he hopes that you are too. But in case you are not—well, a double-meat, double-cheese Whataburger with jalapeños, a side of fries, and a Dr Pepper will likely do the trick.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
Since 1950, we've proudly served a bigger, better burger.
More than seven decades ago, an adventurous and determined entrepreneur named Harmon Dobson had a bold idea: to serve a burger so big that it took two hands to hold, and so good that after a single bite customers couldn't help but exclaim, “What a burger!” He named his humble burger stand, located on Ayers Street in Corpus Christi, Texas, “Whataburger.”
Today, our founder's original vision still inspires everything we do. Each and every Whataburger® is still made to order—when it's ordered. We still use 100% pure, never-frozen beef and serve it on a big, toasted five-inch bun. We still greet our customers with a smile 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And while we now serve hot, fresh food at more than 890 Whataburgers across the country, that burger stand in Corpus Christi is never far from our hearts.
The golden age of drive-ins and American automobiles was just getting started back on August 8, 1950, when Harmon Dobson opened Whataburger #1. This tiny burger stand offered something people had never seen: a burger that was so big, they had to hold its five-inch bun with two hands. It was an instant success, and Harmon began to expand the business to other markets. In 1955, Harmon married Grace Williamson and they became Whataburger's “First Couple.” Together, they raised three children: Hugh, Lynne and Tom. By the end of the decade, Harmon would open Whataburger #21 in Pensacola, Florida. It was the first Whataburger restaurant outside the state of Texas.
By 1960, Whataburger had 17 restaurants. A year later, the first of the familiar orange and white striped A-frames was built in Odessa, Texas. The menu grew as well, with French fries and hot pies being added in 1962. Tragedy struck the Whataburger family in 1967 when a plane crash took the life of Harmon Dobson. The Dobson family and their extended Whataburger family rallied around and supported Grace as she took over the business.
The ‘70s was a decade of Whataburger milestones. Under the leadership of Grace Dobson, the company thrived and grew. The number of locations doubled to more than 200 restaurants. The first drive-thru was installed in 1971. The Whataburger Jr.® was added to the menu, as were jalapeños and onion rings. And a new building design, which retained the spirit of the original A-frame, was unveiled. This is the era in which country music legend Mel Tillis started appearing in television commercials for the company, a role that would continue through the ‘80s.
At the end of 1980, Whataburger opened its 300th restaurant. Two years later, three Corpus Christi locations began operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, much to the delight of hungry patrons. New menu additions soon followed, including the Breakfast On A Bun®, Whatachick'n®—and the now-famous breakfast Taquitos. The beloved Nickel Mug—now a classic piece of Americana—debuted as a promotion which was supposed to last 1-year but ended up running for 14. And by the end of 1989, Whataburger was serving hot and fresh food at 440 different locations.
Whataburger saw a change of leadership for the first time since the 1990s as Tom Dobson, Harmon's son, took over as President and CEO. A host of new menu items was unveiled, including the Whatameal®, the A.1.® Thick & Hearty Burger®, cookies, biscuits, chicken strips and more. The company also passed the 500-store threshold, making it the nation's eighth-largest hamburger chain. The very first WhataGames, the company's biennial burger Olympic competition for Team Members, was held. And on May 6, 1999, Whataburger by the Bay opened in Corpus Christi as a tribute to Whataburger's upcoming 50th anniversary. Boasting 6,000 square feet, stunning water views and a life-size bronze likeness of Harmon Dobson, this flagship restaurant is a fitting tribute to an amazing man.
On August 8, 2000, Whataburger proudly celebrated its 50th anniversary with 575 restaurants in operation and millions of fans all over the country. In 2001, the 77th Texas Legislature officially recognized what Texans had known for more than 50 years: Whataburger is a designated a ‘Texas Treasure.' New specialty items included the Whataburger Patty Melt and the Honey BBQ Chicken Strip Sandwich. Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks celebrated a ground-breaking ceremony with Grace throwing out the first pitch. Sadly, in 2005, Whataburger Family Members mourned the loss of “Lady Grace” as she was called by many. Whataburger moved its Home Office to San Antonio from Corpus Christi in 2009.
By the company's seventh decade, Whataburger had grown from a single burger stand in Corpus Christi to an 800-restaurant chain that spanned every state from Arizona to Florida. The All-Time Favorites menu, featuring four of the most loved specialty sandwiches from over the years, made its debut and was greeted enthusiastically by Whataburger fans. Whataburger’s Facebook page reached 1 million fans in 2013, just over a year after its launch. Whataburger Fancy Ketchup, Spicy Ketchup and Original Mustard became available at H-E-B stores and online at Whatastore in 2013. Online ordering through Whataburger’s app and website debuted in 2019. BDT Capital Partners acquired a majority interest in Whataburger and Ed Nelson was promoted to President in 2019.
In 2020, Whataburger’s 70th anniversary year, curbside pickup and delivery options launched, the company’s first food truck was unveiled, and our first new large-unit prototype opened. The next year, we awarded more than $90 million in bonuses to our Family Members (what we call our employees) in thanks for their extraordinary service during the pandemic. We also elevated General Managers in our more than 850 restaurants to Operating partners, serving as the face of Whataburger in their communities, connecting and creating relationships with local schools, businesses, and nonprofits. In our eighth decade, we entered new markets including Kansas City, Nashville, and Colorado Springs, expanding our restaurant footprint to 14 states.
Despite all these changes, we're still sticking to what got us here. Serving it hot and fresh, 24/7. Treating our customers right. Being proud of everything we do. And never forgetting where we started. Whataburger is more than a burger chain. It is a place that feels like home to more than 50,000 employees, called Family Members, and millions of customers. It’s a brand built on pride, care, and love. It’s a place people count on in their communities.