After two days of frenzied voting, the shape of the Ultimate Texas Brand Bracket is becoming clear. Some obvious favorites are coasting to victory—three of our four top seeds have shrugged off challengers—while a handful of low seeds have proved surprisingly potent. Before we break down the results, let’s take a moment to remember the brands that ran into stiff competition in the early rounds.
The biggest upset was, perhaps, the second-round elimination of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s top-seeded Magnolia empire. The Fixer Upper couple is among the most iconic faces of twenty-first-century Texas: recognized around the world, owners of their own cable network, influential in home design trends all across the nation, creators of product lines that get their own sections in Target stores, capable of turning Waco—Waco!—into a hot tourist destination. What laid them low? Schlitterbahn, whose success we’ll get into shortly, but also, perhaps, a lack of a singular brand identity. We referred to the couple’s enterprise as Magnolia, as it’s the name of their cable network, magazine, coffee shop, restaurant, and home goods collection. That encompasses much of what they do, but not everything—it excludes Fixer Upper and doesn’t entirely capture the breadth of the Silos, their Waco shopping complex. It’s entirely possible that some Chip and Joanna enthusiasts didn’t immediately connect “Magnolia” to the couple and caused the brand to lose crucial votes.
Other knockouts offered a hint about where the hearts of Texans lay. Luby’s, the cafeteria so iconic that its signature offering, the LuAnn Platter, named a character on King of the Hill, didn’t even escape the first round, falling to Pappas Restaurants. Luby’s has famously struggled in recent years, and Pappas has advanced to the round of sixteen, suggesting that the Houston-based omni-restaurant chain is indeed a Texas icon in its own right. The downfall of Luby’s also indicates that the icons of yesteryear don’t necessarily carry the same cachet they once did.
That’s a trend we’ve seen elsewhere in the bracket. Cowboy boots are indeed iconic, but Lucchese, which has been selling them since its founding in San Antonio 140 years ago, still got bumped off by the Austin-based cooler- and cup-maker Yeti. Taco chains, meanwhile, made up more than a quarter of our Restaurant division (though Taco Cabana and Torchy’s faced each other), and none have survived. This may be because there isn’t a singular statewide taco chain the way there are for burgers and doughnuts—indeed, many of the most beloved taquerias in the state are standalone, family-owned locations.
Finally, let’s take a moment to acknowledge our friends at Whole Earth Provision Company, which went out in the first round after a brutal matchup against H-E-B, and which took the L like a true champ:
Online shoppers can use the code “TM-HEB” to get 3.68 percent off their purchase on the company’s website, a tiny number that matches the percentage of the vote they pulled against the supermarket behemoth.
With that out of the way, let’s look at which brands remain and start casting ballots in the sweet sixteen.
Round of sixteen voting has closed, as of 4:30 p.m. CDT.
Restaurants Get Heated
We’re down to just four eateries, with all the taco and barbecue joints bowing out early. Top seeds Whataburger and Dairy Queen remain, and number one Whataburger has trounced both regional Dallas Tex-Mex chain El Fenix and the Austin-based national chain Torchy’s. Dairy Queen, meanwhile, knocked off San Antonio–based diner chain Jim’s without breaking a sweat, then survived a tougher challenge from Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q in round two. Does that suggest some weakness in DQ’s small-town supremacy, or was it a testament to the strength of Rudy’s?
Rounding out the division are five-seed Shipley Do-Nuts, the long-standing statewide chain out of Houston, and eleven-seed Pappas. Shipley proved that its first-round victory over El Paso–based Chico’s Tacos wasn’t just the result of a soft matchup—it also knocked out Chili’s, the Dallas-based international chain that is still, somehow, Texan through and through. Pappas Restaurants—the parent company of Pappasito’s, Pappadeaux, and a bunch of other places that start with “Pappa”—dispatched Luby’s in round one and then the Dallas-based overstimulation empire of Dave & Buster’s with surprising ease. Can either of them score an upset against one of the top two?
You can almost pencil in three of the final four at this point, with Whataburger easily among them. Texans don’t just like Whataburger; we identify with the place on, like, a spiritual level. Shipley, meanwhile, has a few things going for it—it’s a chain with branches throughout the state, but many Texans still seem to think it’s a business local to wherever they’re from. It’ll take a minor miracle—or at least some megawatt star power—to elevate Shipley over Whataburger. Perhaps noted doughnut enthusiasts Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner can lend their support?
Pappas Hits a Texas Stop Sign
Let’s get this out of the way: Dairy Queen is not actually a Texas company. The chain was founded in Illinois and is currently headquartered in Minnesota. It is, however, somehow still Texas through and through. (Our own Emily McCullar explained the brand’s fascinating history in the state for our fiftieth-anniversary issue earlier this year.) Texans know: if we had put McDonald’s in the bracket, it would have been bounced in the first round. But many a Texan grew up in a town where DQ was the only restaurant, and that loyalty lingers. That said, we’ve already seen Pappas supporters overtake some beloved institutions whose Texan-ness is unquestionable. A showdown between Whataburger and Dairy Queen seemed inevitable at the start of this tourney, but Pappas has a chance to end DQ’s reign.
The Shopping Spree
You’ve spoken with your votes, tweets, and comments: Y’all love H-E-B. Like, really, really love it. The supermarket chain didn’t just beat Whole Earth Provisions and Cavender’s Boot City in the first two rounds, it annihilated them with more than 90 percent of the vote in both polls. Even Whataburger can’t touch those margins of victory. At this point, the San Antonio–based grocer has to be the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. It makes the two-seed in the “stores” division, Buc-ee’s, look downright soft, even though it garnered more than 80 percent of the vote in its second-round matchup with Fiesta Mart.
The beaver still has teeth, though, while this division’s other remaining competitors may have gotten this far thanks to favorable matchups. Academy Sports + Outdoors, a five-seed, trounced GameStop in the first round and overtook Texaco in the second. GameStop, however, is a famously divisive company, while Texaco is—let’s face it—just a gas station with the word “Tex” in its name. Whole Foods, meanwhile, barely survived its second-round challenge from Hill Country jeweler James Avery. No disrespect to Mr. Avery’s artisanal baubles, but silver rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets do not inspire the passion that H-E-B and Buc-ee’s do, and that means Whole Foods is looking shaky in the sweet sixteen.
No Store Does More, but Academy Comes Close
We’ve already anointed H-E-B as the tournament’s likely champion, so how could Academy hope to survive this round? The sporting goods retailer, which has sold many Texans their first pair of cleats, has already demonstrated an ability to summon a groundswell of support. Plus, Academy’s accessible, statewide locations mean that sporty shoppers have likely maintained a connection with the brand throughout their lives. Could that loyalty allow Academy to spring an upset on the H-E-B juggernaut?
A Texas Identity Crisis
Is the Buc-ee’s versus Whole Foods matchup just a microcosm of the culture war? Buc-ee’s, after all, exists almost exclusively in rural areas. Its mascot is a grinning beaver; it sells an endless array of jerky; and its target customer needs a place to park his truck that gets seven miles to the gallon while he pees before going hunting. Whole Foods, meanwhile—well, we needn’t get into all the stereotypes the Austin-based organic grocer embodies. You already know.
But that’s oversimplifying this head-to-head—even granola-munching progressives might question Whole Foods’ labor practices, while rural Texans (and folks in other states) have been less than hospitable to the beaver. Nonetheless, this contest does represent, at least geographically, a battle between urban and rural Texas.
Do the Things You Buy Define You? Maybe.
The closest matchups of round two came in the Products division. Even top-seeded Dr Pepper, which you can probably pencil in for the final four, only won its matchup with Tito’s Vodka by slightly more than a thousand votes, with Instagram polls delivering most of that margin of victory. (Although the overall tally was made closer by a late fusillade of pro-Tito’s votes on our website, all of which came from the same IP address.) Fourteen-seed Stetson, the storied hatmaker, survived a tough challenge from Big Red to become the Cinderella of our Sweet Sixteen. Blue Bell overtook Shiner, and Yeti squeaked past Lucchese with the narrowest victory any of our two-seeds have claimed through the first two rounds.
What to make of this? Maybe this is just the most evenly matched division in the bracket, or perhaps these products just don’t inspire the same kind of fervent enthusiasm that the stores and restaurants do. We’ll get a better sense of that in this round, when Dr Pepper and Yeti face their challengers.
Put a Hat on Dr Pepper
Here’s why an icon like Stetson entered this bracket as a fourteen-seed: They don’t have the social media presence that brands that typically do well in contests like this usually possess. They have less than 10,000 Twitter followers and less than 160,000 followers on Facebook (a much larger platform where even a number in the low six figures puts it behind other brands in this competition). On Instagram, Stetson has 285,000 followers. They’re not even on TikTok. Across its three primary platforms, Stetson’s got fewer than half a million followers. Dr Pepper has 13 million on Facebook alone. We considered reach on social media a key metric in seeding because, after all, that’s one of the bracket’s main methods to vote.
Clearly, though, Stetson has support that belies its comparatively low follower count. It eliminated both the relatively young empire of Kendra Scott and the storied soda brand Big Red. If the hat hive can rally once more, this tourney’s Cinderella would take out a top seed and throw the entire bracket into disarray.
What’s Cooler: Ice Cream or a Literal Cooler?
“Iconic” isn’t just another word for “old,” and there’s no better proof of that than the run Yeti is on. The company wasn’t even founded until 2006—when Lucchese, which it eliminated in round two, was 123 years old. Yet Yeti knocked off both its venerable direct competitor Igloo (founded in 1947) and then the esteemed San Antonio bootmaker. Its victory over Igloo was a romp, while its face-off against Lucchese was decided by fewer than seven hundred votes.
To advance to the elite eight, Yeti will have to overcome another legacy brand—the pride of Brenham, 116-year-old Blue Bell ice cream. Blue Bell has survived scandal and emerged one of the bracket’s powerhouses, indicating that Texans are a forgiving sort. With Yeti’s support looking soft after its nail-biter over Lucchese, the creamery appears most likely to knock off a two-seed in round three.
Getting Wilder Still
Proving that the “forgiving” theme doesn’t just apply to ice cream, Schlitterbahn—whose ride literally decapitated a child in 2016—became the first brand to eliminate a number one seed with its victory over Magnolia. There’s a pattern emerging in the Wild Card division, and an intuitive one at that: people like fun things. Schlitterbahn’s Texas parks, at least, have no tragic history, and the family trips down water slides and lazy rivers clearly linger in many voters’ memories. The fun pick prevailed in several other Wild Card division matchups: Austin City Limits easily overtook Mattress Mack, and Six Flags hoisted itself above Ford trucks.
As for Southwest Airlines? They may not pack roller coasters or multiple stages of music, but the “Wanna Get Away” airline is still more exciting than the state’s most beloved insurance company, and they thumped USAA en route to the sweet sixteen.
Will ACL Slide Out of the Bracket?
Austin City Limits beat Mattress Mack in dominant fashion; the music-festival-slash-TV-show beat the Houston furniture mogul by more than 50 percentage points, more than even the election-skeptical Mack could reasonably dispute. It was the second time ACL had clobbered an opponent in this tournament, but don’t expect another romp in the sweet sixteen, where the brand will face a fellow fun-times challenger in Schlitterbahn. Texans appear to have moved on from the water park’s macabre and scandalous past, so the question now is whether the hottest, coolest time in Texas can compete with Lil Nas X and SZA.
Six Flags Over Love Field
Before Christmas, the fandom surrounding Southwest Airlines was always a little surprising, but also, there’s nothing wrong with providing reasonable airfare for travelers looking to avoid baggage fees. However, after the December freeze that swept the country and canceled thousands of flights affected Southwest disproportionately, we wondered if the brand had lost some cachet among Texans. So far, it appears that it hasn’t, as Southwest has romped through its first- and second-round matchups with Texas Instruments and USAA. Like ACL, however, the airline could be running into a buzzsaw with its next opponent: Six Flags is a beloved institution with two locations in Texas (and plenty of fond memories of Houston’s now-departed AstroWorld). The amusement park chain has momentum after dispatching Mary Kay and Texans’ (apparent) favorite truck brand in Ford. Six Flags may be the lower seed in this matchup, but it sure looks like the one you’d put your money on if you could gamble on this bracket.
(Please, please don’t gamble on this bracket!)