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.