Whatabusiness!

How did a single portable stand in Corpus Christi grow into one of the nation’s most successful fast-food chains? For the founders of Whataburger, it all began fifty years ago with the right ingredients.

New Year’s Day, 1950, Harmon Dobson, a sometime bush pilot, diamond courier, and automobile dealer, wrote in his journal:

Jan 1, 1950—I think this will be an eventful year for me.

Two weeks later he sold his dealership in Arkansas and set out to make his fortune as a wildcatter.

Jan 14, 1950—Left today for Texas & God only knows where.

Things didn’t go as planned.

Late May, 1950—Landed back in Midland April 21 to find that my oil partner had had over 5000 dollars invested in a drilling deal in Loving County, Texas, and on May 18 almost lost the whole thing by fouling up a deal only two days before the money would have been forfeited… . Am now interested in financing Paul Burton, a hamburger expert, in some small specialized hamburger joints somewhere in Texas. This, I believe, will turn out to be a very profitable investment, which is something up until May 1, I was very unaccustomed.

For Dobson, the investment in “hamburger joints” proved profitable indeed. On August 8, 1950, he sold his first Whataburger out of a tiny portable stand across the street from Del Mar College, in Corpus Christi. He charged a then-pricey 25 cents, believing that people would not mind paying a little extra for better quality. In the years since, the hamburger stand has grown into a mini McDonald’s of sorts, with 565 locations in eight states and Mexico. Unlike the Golden Arches, Whataburger can’t brag about billions and billions served, but the Flying W is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this summer at the top of its game: After emerging from a five-year slump, sales have skyrocketed of late, from $366 million in 1993 to $527 million in 1999. During the same period, the number of Whataburger restaurants earning $1 million or more a year nearly tripled, from 73 to 212. In the past five years the chain’s “same store sales”—the benchmark of the fast-food industry—have jumped a whopping 40 percent.

Yet the numbers tell only part of the tale. Over time, Whataburger has evolved into a true Texas icon. The A-frames with orange-and-white-striped roofs can be found in the state’s smallest towns, often where national franchises fear to tread. Talk to anyone who grew up in Texas, and he can rattle off Whataburger stories, from middle-of-the-night visits to morning coffee klatches. A few lucky souls have had life-changing experiences: On Valentine’s Day, 1996, twenty-four couples got married in a Whataburger in Dallas.

August 12, 1950—Big Day—$141.80—Christ What a workhouse—551 hamburgers.

The components of the original Whata-burger quarter-pounder were the same half a century ago as they are today: beef, lettuce, four dill pickles, three slices of tomatoes, chopped onions, and mus- tard. The burgers were also bigger than what the competition served, so Dobson had to contract with a local bread company to manufacture special baking pans that could accommodate five-inch buns. When he wasn’t focused on making the product, he was out promoting it: He would regularly take to the skies over Corpus Christi, dropping coupons from a Piper Super Cub plane that towed a bright red Whataburger banner.

Whataburger is still headquartered in Corpus, and more important, it remains in the hands of the Dobson family. Paying no mind to overtures from prospective buyers or the siren call of a Wall Street IPO, the Dobsons have been firmly in charge since Harmon first fired the grills. After he was killed in a plane crash in 1967, his wife, Grace, took over; although she no longer handles the day-to-day operations, she is still thought of as the “first lady” of Whataburger. “Mother” might be more apt. Even today, Grace Dobson has a maternal presence that is felt in every office and hallway at Whataburger headquarters, where executives are reluctant to boast about the company’s success, as if they’re afraid of being reprimanded. While she stays out of the limelight—characteristically, she declined to be interviewed for this story—she attends nearly every company event; she even shows up at picnics attended by the fry cooks and the drive-through operators. As one Whataburger official explains, “When she shows up at these events, it’s like Elvis has just arrived.”

And yet her lifestyle is nowhere near as opulent as the King’s. Her ownership interest in Whataburger has made her fabulously wealthy—though how wealthy is anyone’s guess, since the company is privately held—yet she still lives in the same modest house in which she and Harmon raised their three children. Her daughter, Lynne, attributes her mother’s frugality to her dirt-poor Depression-era childhood in Arkansas. “Grace is a loving, caring person, just like my wife, except my wife shops at Neiman Marcus and Grace shops at Kmart,” says longtime franchisee Larry Gates, who has worked for or with Whata-burger for almost thirty years.

Not that the Dobsons are cheap. They’ve always preached the gospel of corporate involvement in every community with a Whataburger, and they’ve led by example. There is scarcely a public building or a charity in Corpus Christi, from the Texas State Aquarium to the local chapter of the United Way, that hasn’t benefited from Whataburger’s munificence. “No one even bats an eyelash when it comes to giving,” says Bill Boller, an area manager for Austin Whataburgers.

April 28-29, 1951—Had little episode with the boys … about wearing caps. I’ll have to change my method with the boys. I can see that now.

When you spend time with Whataburger employees, the same question pops into your head as when you fly on Southwest Airlines: Why are these people so happy? Around the corporate office and the fryer, they talk about the passion they have for their jobs and of the legacy they feel a responsibility to uphold. They say they “bleed mustard.” They speak reverently about the Dobsons. They get misty-eyed when discussing the “Whataburger difference.” You almost forget they’re talking about burgers and breakfast tacos.

Customers are equally devoted. According to the Whataburger publicity department, the average Whataburger customer eats at the

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