There are many things that define the Texan identity, but perhaps none is more endearing than our fierce loyalty to our own. It’s true of artists and musicians, authors and athletes. It’s a big part of why this magazine has continued to exist for fifty years!
And it extends, of course, to the brands that sell us our boots, burgers, and groceries. Texans stan for H-E-B, boast about Buc-ee’s, and base alarming amounts of our personalities on Whataburger. For years, we had our own special Dr Pepper recipe, just for us. We raise our children on Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, will drive past three gas stations to get to our favorite Texaco, and barely consider anything other than Blue Bell worthy of the name “ice cream.”
Yet how does one understand the hierarchy of where all of these brands stand in the hearts of Texans? There’s no doubt that Texans adore Shiner Bock and Mattress Mack—but where do these brands rank, in relation to one another, in our collective esteem? In order to answer that question, we bring you the Ultimate Texas Brand Bracket.
Here’s how it’ll work: starting today, and running every day this week, we’ll be asking you to vote on a 64-brand bracket in which many of the most well-loved brands from Texas go head-to-head. Like in the NCAA tournaments, each round will eliminate half of the contenders. Voting will open at 9 a.m. each day and run through 4:30 p.m., with votes cast either right here on TexasMonthly.com, on Facebook, on Instagram, or on Twitter. If you’re particularly impassioned about a place or a product, feel free to vote on all three platforms. Each day, the total number of votes cast for each brand across all platforms will be tallied, and the winner will advance to the next round.
Before we get to the voting, a few notes. There are obviously more than 64 iconic brands in Texas, so the contestants were curated using a combination of factors. We wanted to ensure that as many regions of Texas were represented as possible—and as many facets of Texas culture as we could fit in. (Otherwise, it would be possible to fill an entire bracket of just, say, Austin-based restaurant chains.) If a brand you adore failed to make the list, don’t take it as a slight—our goal here was to provide a broad sampling of the breadth of brands that inspire that famous Texan loyalty, with the understanding that not all could be included.
Seeding was informed by data, with factors including social media following, number of store locations, and years of reader feedback leading us to stack the matchups—but these are obviously only starting points, and the real rankings will be determined by you, the readers, who could easily upend our expectations by rallying behind an unexpected champion. Brands are grouped into four divisions (each with sixteen contestants): restaurants, stores (defined as places you go to buy anything other than a hot, prepared meal), products (defined as items you can purchase from a variety of retailers), and wild cards (defined as anything other than the above). Finally, a Texas brand has been identified as any brand that started here, is headquartered here, is primarily based here, or—in rare instances—has long used a unique earworm of a jingle to advertise specifically to Texans (see: Dairy Queen, Ford trucks).
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the matchups, and may the most iconic brand win.
Restaurants: Bring on the Food Fight
The Corpus Christi–founded juggernaut takes on Dallas’s go-to Tex-Mex
Whataburger is a heavy favorite in the restaurant division. The chain inspires such intense pride in Texans that it’s been parodied by the Onion and has inspired oddly romantic art. Its table tents are a hot black-market item! There’s no doubt it’s the top seed in the restaurant division. On the other side of the fight, we’ve got Dallas-based Tex-Mex brand El Fenix, the oldest Mexican-restaurant chain in the country. The regional company operates fourteen stores throughout the Metroplex, including its iconic downtown location, which opened back in 1918.
The San Antonio versus Austin taco wars—but make it chain restaurants
The taco showdown between San Antonio–based Taco Cabana and Austin-based Torchy’s could well serve as a proxy war between the two cities and their long-standing tortilla-wrapped feud: Taco C, as it’s affectionately known, is straightforward and unfussy, exactly how many San Antonians see themselves and their city. Torchy’s, meanwhile, is newer and more adventurous in its menu and restaurant design, serving up tacos with names like Trailer Park Trashy and Naughty Santa. Both are beloved by their fans and found throughout Texas—but which one inspires greater loyalty?
The world loves doughnuts, but El Pasoans love Chico’s
Shipley Do-Nuts started in Houston 87 years ago, but the doughnut/kolache/pastry place is an institution that still resonates with young tastemakers. (Travis Scott took Kylie Jenner during a Houston visit early in their courtship!) It’s also spread well beyond its Space City roots, with more than three hundred locations—the vast majority of which are in Texas. Chico’s Tacos, meanwhile, is a regional institution within El Paso famed for its flautas. It’s rare that one escapes El Chuco without forming an opinion on Chico’s. Will that be enough to help the twelfth seed advance against the doughnut titan of Texas?
David (taco’s version) versus Goliath (of baby back ribs)
Is Chili’s, an international chain with more than 1,200 locations nationwide, a local restaurant? Our own taco editor argues that it embodies the spirit of Dallas, where it was founded in 1975. One will find no one singing about baby back ribs at Taco Palenque, the Laredo-based chain that has, since its inception in 1987, earned converts as it’s spread across South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, up to San Antonio, over to Houston, and—as of 2021—as far north as the Austin suburb of Round Rock. Chili’s is Goliath and Palenque is David in this matchup, but keep an eye on it for underdog potential.
Battle of casino lites
Dallas-based Dave & Buster’s and Irving-based Chuck E. Cheese have similar concepts: food and fun (in the form of arcade games and similar activities) under one roof. Dave & Buster’s caters to a legitimately all-ages crowd, while Chuck E. Cheese is for the children. Accordingly, Dave & Buster’s gets the higher seed in this showdown, as Chuck E. Cheese doesn’t draw many adults. Still, the animatronics of Charles Entertainment Cheese and his fellow rocking friends may earn some nostalgia bids, so this one could go either way.
It’s the LuAnn Platter versus . . . every cuisine
Luby’s is a Texas institution, one of the most beloved the state has ever produced. It has, however, seen better days—in 2020, the chain’s assets were liquidated and the company was dissolved. That’s frequently the end of such stories, but the LuAnn Platter has proven resilient: the following year, the chain was rescued by a Chicago entrepreneur, who has continued serving plates of a meat and two sides, plus a roll, to hungry Texans in the years that have followed. The limping Luby’s faces Houston-based Pappas Restaurants, a group that includes Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappas Seafood House, Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, and Pappasito’s. Pappas is a dominant chain in its hometown of Houston, but it is relevant in many parts of the state, with numerous locations in the DFW Metroplex, as well as outposts in Austin, Beaumont, Pharr, and San Antonio—with more around the country.
San Antonio’s barbecue battle royale
Rudy’s and Bill Miller are like opposite sides of the same coin. They’re both venerable chains founded in San Antonio serving affordable mass-market barbecue. Rudy’s locations are a bit more experiential, with country stores and trademark checkered tablecloths; Bill Miller, meanwhile, supplements its barbecue offerings with fried chicken. Rudy’s has greater breadth, with 45 locations around Texas and additional outposts around the Southwest and in Oklahoma and Florida; Bill Miller, on the other hand, offers greater depth, with 79 locations centered almost entirely in the Austin, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio regions.
That’s what I like about Texas?
Is Dairy Queen a Texas chain? As much as any company that’s technically headquartered in Minnesota can possibly be. The iconic DQ sign is a facet of many a Texan’s childhood—whether they grew up in a big city awash with options or a small town where there were few other places to go—and the “That’s what I like about Texas” jingle is probably better known than our own state song. Still, to advance to the next round, Dairy Queen will have to take on the beloved San Antonio diner chain Jim’s Restaurants, which serves homestyle breakfasts, liver-and-onion lunches, and Texas pecan pies to hungry patrons in Austin and San Antonio from the early morning hours till late at night.
Vote for Your Favorite Spots to Shop
The grocery chain that Texans like to make their entire personality versus an outdoors lover’s paradise
To describe Texans as passionate about H-E-B would be an understatement. In the parts of the state where the grocery chain operates, customer loyalty is fierce to the point of obsession. In the parts of the state where the company doesn’t yet dominate (i.e., Dallas), H-E-Buddy and friends are greeted as liberators every time they open a new store. Competing with all of that is the Austin-based camping, outdoors, home goods, and clothing chain Whole Earth Provision Co., a well-loved and long-standing business that operates six stores spread between its hometown, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
It’s boots versus books
Cavender’s is a stalwart Texas institution, a both fashionable and, somehow, no-frills place to pick up Western wear—boots, yes, but also hats, pearl-snap shirts, Wranglers, and anything else you might need to look right at home at the ranch (or maybe at a Yellowstone-themed party). On the other side, we’ve got the Dallas-based used-book seller Half Price Books, which for more than five decades has bought and sold everything printed and recorded except yesterday’s newspaper—all for, as you may have surmised, half price.
The right stonk, the right price
GameStop gets the headlines: you may recall the struggling chain’s surprise 2021 stock-market run, as a legion of Reddit users attempted to force short sellers to pay astronomical prices to maintain their positions. Beyond its viral status, the North Texas gaming and pop culture chain has aimed to redefine its business model as something that can succeed amid gaming’s transition to digital media (many current-generation consoles don’t even have a place to insert a physical disk). Can the meme stonk compete with Harris County–based Academy, which sells balls, bats, cleats, camping gear, and other items that you need to physically hold in your hands in order to use? We’ll find out.
Do Texans love their gas stations as much as their leather goods?
If you’ve ever driven past two perfectly good, reasonably priced gas stations to get to a Texaco, then you know why the chain is such a high seed. The “Tex” in the name didn’t get there by accident, and even though the company—founded in Beaumont in 1902—is now owned by Chevron and headquartered in California, it’s earned a lot of loyalty. Fossil, meanwhile, was founded in Richardson in 1984, and it has built a massive following that includes patrons of 24 stores across Texas, all of which sell wallets, watches, and other leather goods.
The other grocery stores
The story of Whole Foods is a well-told one—from a hippie-dippie Austin grocer to a status-symbol international supermarket chain that earned the nickname “Whole Paycheck.” The company is still headquartered in Texas, but its ownership these days is, of course, straight out of Seattle—Amazon purchased the company for more than $13 billion in 2017. In our first round, Whole Foods will take on Randalls, which had its own transition from “beloved local chain” (after its founding in Houston in the 1960s) to “part of a global conglomerate”—first with Safeway, in 1999, and then with Albertsons, which acquired the corporate parent in 2014. Randalls has seen better days, as the chain is down to just 28 locations in the Houston and Austin areas, but perhaps the Randalls hive still has some juice.
Longtime department store versus every Texas high schooler’s fave spot to grab a best-friend charm
Like many Texans, J. C. Penney wasn’t born here, but it got here as fast as it could. Well, it got here, anyway—the chain was founded by James Cash Penney in Wyoming way back in 1902, spent some time in New York trying to find itself, then landed in Plano in 1988. It’s been an up-and-down time since for the shopping-mall staple, including a 2020 bankruptcy that left it temporarily without a headquarters—but the ship appears to have righted itself, as J. C. Penney is moving back home to Plano this year. James Avery, meanwhile, started making jewelry in his mother-in-law’s Kerrville garage back in 1954, and the trajectory has largely been steadily upward since. Today, the company he founded sells its wares in more than 250 stores nationwide.
The other other grocery stores
The friendly parrot mascot of Fiesta Mart signals to shoppers in the chain’s hometown of Houston—as well as in Austin and the DFW metroplex—that they’re in a supermarket that can rival H-E-B for customer loyalty. The chain has been offering products that cater specifically (though hardly exclusively) to Hispanic Texans since 1972, often alongside other convenient services, such as banking and jewelry sales. In a grocer-versus-grocer battle, Fiesta will take on Tom Thumb, which was founded in Dallas in 1948. While the company was acquired by Randalls in 1992 and has subsequently been bought by Safeway and Albertsons, it remains one of North Texas’s dominant supermarket chains.
Will the beaver give Texas’s longtime luxury provider a run for its money?
Ah, Buc-ee’s. Love or hate the beaver, the chain—which only expanded to include massive travel centers in 2001—has become iconically Texan over the past two decades, offering its own cultishly adored snacks, pretty decent barbecue for a gas-station chain, and famously clean bathrooms to motorists across the state (and beyond). To advance, Buc-ee’s will have to overcome an icon of a previous generation: the glitzy, glamorous Neiman Marcus, founded in 1907 to give Texans the opportunity to enjoy the sort of luxury goods they’d otherwise have to take a train to New York to obtain. As in the case of its department-store sibling J. C. Penney, recent years have been something of a roller coaster for the chain—it filed for bankruptcy in 2020 but experienced a post-pandemic rebound two years later.
You may be a Pepper, but do you have comfortable shoes?
Dr Pepper (real Pepperheads know there’s no punctuation after the “Dr”) is a product of Waco, and boy howdy, are Texans proud of that. The soft drink has its own museum in the city, its own shake at Whataburger, and its own permanent place in many of our hearts. None of us knows what the precise flavoring is (it’s not prunes!) But the mystery only serves to make the drink more compelling. On the other side of the showdown is San Antonio’s SAS Shoes (you can probably guess what it stands for), which is revered for its handcrafted footwear, available in a stunning array of widths and sizes (116 for the fellas, 88 for the ladies).
America’s go-to vodka takes on the scent of our youth
When it comes to meteoric-success stories, there are only a handful that rival the tale of Tito’s, a little-vodka-brand-that-could legend that grew from a microdistillery in 1997 to the dominant player on the scene, accounting for a whopping 13.8 percent of all U.S. vodka sales in 2021. Can Mrs Baird’s, the iconic bakery from Fort Worth, compete with all of that? We’ll find out!
This matchup just sounds like a solid lunch option
This is one of the truly difficult matchups from the first round. Both Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, the iconic savory treat of the State Fair of Texas, and Big Red, the Waco-born cream soda that serves as the yin to Dr Pepper’s yang, are contenders to win it all—but brackets are where tough choices get made, and only one can advance to the next round.
Accessories make the Texan
Austin-based Kendra Scott is the Buc-ee’s (or maybe the Tito’s) of tasteful, affordable jewelry; from humble beginnings hand selling merchandise around the city in the early aughts, founder Kendra Scott now offers her products at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and other fashionable retailers, as well as more than a hundred stores bearing Scott’s name. The legendary hats made in Garland by the John B. Stetson Company, meanwhile, need no introduction—if you know Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, or Will Rogers, you know what a Stetson looks like. You might even have one yourself.
Prior to 2015, Blue Bell would have been an odds-on favorite to win the entire bracket. The company’s reputation obviously took a tarnishing after that year’s listeria outbreak, but Texans are a forgiving people. Blue Bell will need that grace to compete with San Antonio’s Bolner’s Fiesta Brand spices, a staple of many a Texan’s pantry thanks to the company’s barbecue rubs, fajita seasonings, and more.
Battle for the domestic beer of Texas
The battle of the beers is another hotly contested round-one matchup: Shiner Bock, the flagship beer from—you guessed it—Shiner, Texas, has long held a special place in the hearts of Texans. Its national expansion over recent years has only added to the romance. But it’ll have to overcome “the National Beer of Texas,” Lone Star, in order to advance, which has been brewing in Texas—first in San Antonio, then in Longview, and now in Fort Worth—since 1884.
What does your boot brand say about you?
Lucchese has been making boots in Texas for 140 years. Tecovas has been doing it for 8. Lucchese—which moved to El Paso from San Antonio in 1986—has long been synonymous with Western luxury, while the upstart Tecovas quickly grew to prominence for its high-quality, direct-to-consumer designs. Both companies offer stylish and contemporary takes on one of the most important parts of any Texan’s wardrobe.
It’s just a cooler. Or is it?
From the end of World War II, if you needed a camping cooler to keep your drinks cold, the odds were good that it would have been made by Katy-based Igloo. These days, however, it might well be a Yeti. The Austin-based brand burst onto the scene in 2006 and has hardly looked back, earning not just a significant chunk of the market, but also a cult following that seems downright unlikely for a cooler brand.
The Wild Cards
That’s a lot of personality
The empire created by Chip and Joanna Gaines is nothing short of mind-blowing. The Fixer Upper couple have their own network (Magnolia Network); they’ve brought shiplap to the masses; they have an increasingly large home-goods footprint in Target stores around the country; they’ve managed to make Waco fashionable. When the complete history of Texas is finally written, the duo, against all odds, will have a chapter with color plates. That’s not exactly true of Thomas J. Henry, the San Antonio lawyer who has spent the past decade branding himself as one of the state’s most outsized legal personalities, but it’s not far off in his case, either.
Nothing is stronger than nostalgia
Schlitterbahn, despite the company’s troubles, remains an integral part of the childhoods of Texans in Galveston and New Braunfels. Is it still the hottest coolest time in Texas? We’ll get a better sense of that if Schlitterbahn survives a showdown with Dell, the Round Rock–based technology company founded by Michael Dell in 1984. Dell’s footprint in the consumer electronics world has shrunk since its early aughts “dude, you’re getting a Dell” heyday, but it’s still a major player in the world of enterprise and corporate computing.
A Fort Worth-based airline versus the Austin music behemoth
Austin City Limits is several things: a television show, a music festival, a traffic nightmare for Austinites every October. American Airlines is mostly just one: the DFW-based carrier is the largest airline in the world. ACL inspires both joy and antipathy, depending on if you’re more interested in music than you are in Austin’s parks being available to the public year-round. What does American Airlines inspire? We’ll understand more about that if it advances to the next round.
Well 👀 at that
SpaceX is technically based in California, but its launch site near Boca Chica Beach, outside Brownsville, is all Texas. It’s turned the city into an unexpected tourist destination—and potentially an aerospace hub, as founder Elon Musk has urged engineers and technicians to relocate to a part of the state he’s dubbed “Starbase.” All this is not without controversy, though, as locals have pushed back against what SpaceX’s presence might do to Brownsville’s culture. Somehow, Gallery Furniture owner Mattress Mack is also not devoid of controversy, despite spending years establishing himself as one of Houston’s highest-profile philanthropists, business personalities, and gamblers—as his recent focus on politics has put a new spin on his act.
Will it be Texas kids’ summer destination or a chance at a pale pink Caddy?
In the six decades since Six Flags Over Texas opened in Arlington, the amusement-park chain has become a signature part of the Texas entertainment landscape. The Arlington park was supplemented by Houston’s Six Flags AstroWorld, which Texans adored from its opening in 1968 (as AstroWorld) until its closing in 2005, and later by Six Flags Fiesta Texas, in San Antonio, which Six Flags has run continuously since 1996. While the chain is international—it operates 23 full amusement parks in the U.S., as well as one in Canada, two in Mexico, plus a forthcoming expansion to Saudi Arabia—its name is pure Texas, which tends to do us proud. Mary Kay is a different sort of institution: the company is one of the original multilevel marketing firms, having recruited salespeople with the promise of a pale pink Cadillac and the chance to be one’s own boss for six decades of its own.
Not Texans . . . but still Texans
Neither Ford nor Chevy is a Texas company, but both are heavily invested in catering to Texans’ sense of identity: no NFL Sunday goes by without hearing a deep country accent intone that “Ford is the best in Texas” or that “Chevy drives Texas”—slogans that truck buyers in, say, Indiana don’t hear about their own state. Which brand owns the hearts and minds of Texans? That’s for y’all to tell us.
How do Texans feel about their insurance and telecom institutions? You tell us.
As Rob Gronkowski has famously learned, San Antonio–based financial services and insurance group USAA is for members of the military community and their families. That is a group that includes a whole lot of Texans, most of whom tend to be very passionate about their bank/insurance company, which is an uncommon thing for most Americans to feel strongly about. Do these members feel a closer connection to USAA than customers of Dallas-based AT&T to the telecommunications giant? We’ll find out when round one is over.
Sure, bags fly free, but you can play Snake on this TI-83
The Christmas and New Year holidays last year were a rough time for Southwest Airlines, which has long occupied a closer place in the hearts of most Texans than your average airline. Is it the egalitarian focus on allowing passengers to choose their own seats upon boarding? The fact that Southwest flies out of the smaller and easier-to-navigate airports in Dallas and Houston, two of our largest cities? The rare “bags fly free” model for checked luggage? Perhaps it’s all of the above. If Texans have forgiven the airline for its holiday cancellations, we’ll expect Southwest to advance over Texas Instruments—though the romance many a young mathlete had with their graphing calculator could lead to an upset.