The first round of the Texas Brand Bracket is in the books, and—as happens with all such elimination tournaments—there are some hard losses to accept. How did Purdue feel after they fell to the Fairleigh Dickinson University Knights last week? Bad, clearly, but those of us who have a deep emotional connection to Half Price Books or Taco Palenque can relate. We’ve also seen a handful of upsets, especially in two matchups on the right-hand side of the bracket: Despite the growing empire that is Kendra Scott, the dominant Austin jewelry brand proved no match for the iconic power of Stetson, now in its sixteenth decade of outfitting Texans (and others). Then, in our “Wild Cards” division, the battle between sorta-Texan Elon Musk’s Brownsville-conquering SpaceX against Houston furniture salesman, philanthropist, gambling enthusiast, and election conspiracy theorist Mattress Mack turned out to be no contest at all, with Mack trouncing the company belonging to a man determined to be the Main Character of Life.
Other matchups turned out to be buzzer-beaters. Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs vs. Big Red—an unfortunate draw that left two potential bracket-winners facing off in the first round—went down to the wire, with Big Red emerging by a mere 90 votes. Votes were similarly close in the competition between Taco Cabana and Torchy’s, as Torchy’s escaped by just 158 tallies. Luby’s and Pappas Restaurants turned out to be similarly pitched, where an edge on Instagram nudged Pappas to victory by a 240-vote margin.
Finally, the highest seeds all advanced without breaking a sweat. Whataburger ate El Fenix for lunch; H-E-B trounced Whole Earth Provisions; Dr Pepper stepped all over SAS Shoes; and the Magnolia empire of Chip and Joanna Gaines covered Thomas J. Henry in shiplap. In all, more than 215,000 votes were cast in the first round. But what’s past is prologue, and we’re now casting ballots in round two, as we further narrow the field in our quest to determine the most beloved Texas brand.
The Food Fight Continues
Whataburger takes on a taco upstart
The narrow victory Torchy’s claimed over Taco Cabana is a significant win for the Austin-based, nationwide taco chain. Things won’t get any easier for the lil’ devil in round two as it takes on our top seed in Whataburger (which destroyed El Fenix with more than 90 percent of the vote).
Shipley Do-Nuts faces a tougher test
In round one, Shipley drew El Paso institution Chico’s Tacos. Chico’s is the most recognized chain in Sun City, but it’s also divisive even among locals—and being iconic in a city of less than 700,000 residents makes for an uphill battle. Accordingly, it’s unclear from the round one results whether Shipley is a paper tiger or if the Houston-based donut chain has the legs to go the distance here. We’ll get a better sense of that in this round, when it takes on Chili’s—a national chain whose North Texas roots are nonetheless apparent in virtually every bite.
Gaming the odds
Dave & Buster’s faced down Charles Entertainment Cheese, the rodent from whence its food-plus-games concept was born, and did not blink; it overwhelmed the kid-friendly pizza paradise by more than forty points. The question now is whether that pattern will hold as it faces its next challenge: Houston-based Pappas Restaurants, which emerged narrowly victorious from a fierce struggle against Luby’s.
To what extent is Texas truly DQ country?
One of the more surprising outcomes in the first round was the severe thrashing that Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q gave to its fellow San Antonio–based barbecue chain, trouncing Bill Miller Bar-B-Q nearly four to one in what seemed like a fairly evenly matched contest. That performance adds some drama to its showdown with Dairy Queen—a chain that, while technically based in Minnesota, has nonetheless been among the most ubiquitous in Texas. Will DQ continue to melt the competition, or could it face an upset against a surprisingly frisky challenger?
A Shopper’s Paradise
Will H-E-B give Cavender’s the boot?
Cavender’s handily controlled the competition against Half Price Books, but now the beloved boot store faces one of the toughest outs in the whole competition in H-E-B. Texans across Central and South Texas adore the grocer to such an extent that even shoppers in parts of the state where the company doesn’t operate end up sucked into the supermarket’s gravity. Cavender’s, meanwhile, operates statewide—but the number of Texans buying western wear is dwarfed by the number who need groceries, making this a tough one for a store that specializes in boots to survive.
Wow, y’all are really passionate about a gas station
Texaco’s matchup against leather goods store Fossil was a laugher. Was that because Texans have a deep and personal connection to a gas station with “Tex” in its name, or because Fossil, which operates nationally, doesn’t have the same sort of Texas tie? We’ll find out when Texaco takes on Academy, which coasted past GameStop in its first round, in a triumph of balls and bats over discs and consoles.
Precious metals versus similarly priced groceries
Both James Avery and Whole Foods had an easy time advancing to the second round. But they faced J.C. Penney and Randalls, respectively—both legacy retailers that have had their share of struggles. Now that they’re up against one another, we’ll get a better sense of which one is nestled more snugly inside of Texans’ hearts.
Will Fiesta Mart dam the beaver’s chances?
Houston-based Fiesta Mart is a largely regional chain, with more than two-thirds of its stores located in its hometown—though that was hardly a speed bump for the grocer in its first-round matchup against Tom Thumb. Things get much tougher for the supermarket in round two, when it takes on Buc-ee’s, the mighty beaver that’s on the vanguard of a new generation of Texas icons.
The Right Stuff
Tito may be many things, but he’s not a doctor
Tito’s Vodka is, like Buc-ee’s, part of a new generation of iconic Texas brands. Unlike the beaver, however, America’s best-selling vodka faces off against more than a century of Texas pride in round two: it runs straight into the brick wall that is Dr Pepper this time out. In a matchup of a young icon against one of the originals, the odds have to favor the doctor—but if the Tito’s hive activates, this one could turn out to be interesting.
Big Red’s path doesn’t get any easier
Stetson was one of the underdogs to make good in round one, proving that nearly 160 years of selling hats and other western-wear accessories to Texans doesn’t mean that a brand is stale, even when put up against a beloved rising icon such as Kendra Scott. Big Red, meanwhile, is a bit more storied; after 84 years of offering a sweet, fizzy complement to barbecue—and surviving the first round’s closest matchup against Fletcher’s Corny Dogs—does it have the right stuff to take on the iconic hatmaker?
All the makings of a good party
Blue Bell turned in one of the most dominant day-one performances of any contestant in the brand bracket, clobbering Bolner’s Fiesta Brand Spices by a whopping eighty-point margin. Shiner, meanwhile, faced a tougher matchup—against its fellow proudly Texan beer, Lone Star—and still managed to score a thirty-point win. It’s safe, at this point, to say that Blue Bell is the most beloved Texas ice cream and Shiner the most iconic beer—so in a matchup between beer and ice cream, who’ve you got?
Are boots still the most iconic Texas accessory?
Lucchese and Yeti both faced direct competitors in the first round—Lucchese against upstart boot brand Tecovas, and Yeti against venerable cooler brand Igloo. Neither of them had to sweat to advance to the next round. This time, however, the two will settle a more difficult question: Are cowboy boots still the go-to Texas accessory, or has Yeti (in cooler, cup, or bottle form) surpassed it with the current generation of Texans? We’ll find out soon.
Getting even wilder
The hottest, coolest time in Waco
Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire had no trouble defeating San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry in the first round—but Schlitterbahn had just as easy a time dispatching Dell, which makes this a more even match than it may have seemed at first blush. The Gaineses have transformed Waco (and many open-concept living spaces) in their ascent to the top of their game. But nostalgia is a powerful force, and many a Texan has deeply ingrained memories of Schlitterbahn fun. The water park looks to be a tough out, and this is a matchup to watch with big upset potential.
Can Mattress Mack pull off a moonshot?
In one of round one’s biggest upsets, Houston furniture icon Mattress Mack easily bested SpaceX. His victory does pose a question, however: Do Texans love Mattress Mack that much, or is it merely that there’s a deep well of antipathy toward SpaceX founder Elon Musk? We’ll get a much better sense of the answer to that question when Mack faces Austin City Limits, the long-running PBS show and music festival.
Six Flags crushed Mary Kay in round one, a lopsided 80-point victory proving a simple maxim: People like fun places more than they like multi-level marketing operations—even ones as distinctly Texan as Mary Kay. Does the same hold true when the theme park chain faces off against Ford trucks, the brand that has its own special branding and advertising just for Texans? We’ll find out—but the mere existence of an F-150 King Ranch edition means that it could go either way.
Does Gronk have his finger on the pulse of Texas?
USAA—the military insurance and banking giant whose omnipresent ads starring former NFL star Rob Gronkowski have elevated it in the national discourse in recent years—shrugged off a challenge from telecom giant AT&T in round one. In round two, however, it’ll have to take on another corporate titan: Southwest Airlines, whose trouncing of Texas Instruments in round one indicates that it clearly has not suffered much in the way of reputational damage among Texans, despite its troubles over the holidays.