For many people who came of age in Texas, swiping a Whataburger table tent has become something of a tradition. Taking those small, A-shaped plastic order numbers can be part of a teenage rebellion, or even the tiny adrenaline rush of an otherwise responsible adult. Sometimes there’s a sentimental reason: it’s an athlete’s jersey number, perhaps, or a particularly meaningful year. Some might be hoarding them in their glove box as handy ice scrapers or as adorable shelters for their hamsters. Many people probably take them on some sudden whim, inscrutable even to them. Occasionally, it might even be an honest mistake.
Whatever the reason, customers have been walking off with Whataburger tents for years now—and particularly since 2004, when the beloved burger franchise switched from using plain old solid-blue numbers to those boasting its iconic orange-and-white stripes. This phenomenon even attracted some national attention in 2017, garnering a piece in The Wall Street Journal. It’s become an open secret, enabled by the fact that while Whataburger doesn’t officially endorse stealing their tents, no one’s going to leap over the counter to chase you down for it, either.
“We just believe it’s the cost of doing business,” says Rich Scheffler, Whataburger’s vice president of marketing and innovation. He estimates that the company loses more than one million table tents every year, whether from theft or common wear and tear. Annually, Whataburger spends upward of $200,000 just on replacing them, he says. Still, they don’t really mind. “When we see them on a dashboard or somebody’s desk or shelf, it makes us proud that somebody likes us that much,” Scheffler says. “We’re pleased that our customers have that connection.”
Whataburger sells a lot of merchandise through its online store to foster that relationship, everything from French fry-shaped phone chargers to custom Justin boots. It sells its table tents, too, but only in special editions tailored for birthdays, holidays, or graduations. To get certain numbers, people either swipe them or turn to the black market, which is thriving. Every day, sellers are flipping Whataburger tents on eBay for a tidy profit, auctioning most of them off for around $6 or $7 a pop. They’re usually sold individually, with “special” numbers commanding the highest prices. One of the most popular is the number 69, which has been billed as “the rarest, the most desirable, the most impossible to find number” in all of Whataburger’s stores, although there’s no evidence to support that.
“I’m sure it’s because it’s our 69th anniversary this year,” Scheffler says, laughing.
You’ll find them bundled in lots, and sometimes you can even find complete sets, still wrapped in plastic. Some of these have gone for close to $200, an asking price that’s both ridiculous and admirable in its audacity, and clearly not a deterrent for the person who actually shelled out that sum. Scheffler says he has no idea how black market sellers might be getting ahold of those large batches—could it be that they have someone on the inside, tipping them off about when the next shipment is due in exchange for a cut of the profits? You’ve seen Goodfellas. You get the idea.
I’d love to tell you precisely how this black market operates—about how those sellers felt getting their first, spicy-ketchup taste of crime, about the increasing lengths they go to in order to keep up with demand, about whether they ever wander the orange-and-white-striped colonnades of their Scarface-style mansions, feeling soul-sick over whether it was all worth it. But despite my repeated attempts to contact them over the course of several months, no one would talk with me.
I messaged every seller I could find, offering anonymity if it would help, but no dice. I went to the popular r/Whataburger thread on Reddit, posting an open call for anyone who’d ever bought or sold a used table tent. “Shut up u narc” was the most popular reply. “Nice try officer” said another. Silly as it might be to imagine that everyone out there slinging purloined Whataburger tents is an elusive, Walter White-esque mastermind, there’s an equivalent paranoia around the whole operation. Most seemed to be convinced that I was trying to pull off the world’s least clever sting.
Given that Whataburger itself doesn’t really care, you can probably attribute some of their hesitation to Denton County’s Northeast Police Department. In 2017, the NPD posted a public notice on its Facebook page, saying it had been recovering large quantities of Whataburger tents during routine traffic stops, most of them taken by bored teens as some sort of game. The police sternly reminded everyone that this constitutes “stolen property;” as the Wall Street Journal reported, it forced the kids to return them to the local Whataburger in Cross Roads. Some residents scoffed in the comments at the waste of police time and resources, mocking what seemed like a disproportionate response to such a petty crime (one that can also have disproportionate consequences on people of color), but the department remained firm. “It’s just a little piece of plastic, but it’s not yours,” an NPD spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. “Don’t take it.”
Ironically, some of their fellow cops didn’t seem to get the message. Just one month later, reporters caught members of the Houston Police Department using Whataburger table tents to mark a murder scene in 2017—a fairly common practice by first responders, who tend to improvise with whatever’s handy. But after the incident went viral and ended up in the Journal article, the department reportedly issued a directive, asking that all officers refrain from using Whataburger tents (or any clearly branded product) as evidence markers ever again. Still, it didn’t deter others from trying, even after the report came out.
“We had some requests from another police department if they could get some and use them,” Scheffler says. “We declined politely. It’s just not how the brand wanted to be associated.”
When it comes to people taking their tents, Whataburger seems to prefer thieves to cops. At least theirs is a crime of passion, they reckon, and even those who flip them are presumably selling them to fellow fans—Texas expats nostalgic for a familiar piece of home, perhaps, or people who don’t want to take one for themselves. Regardless, Whataburger has no intention of cracking down on anyone, or even sending operatives clumsily disguised as Texas Monthly reporters to sniff them out. This has always been Whataburger’s attitude, and Scheffler expects things to remain “business as usual,” even under its new owners.
If any of you table tent smugglers want to come out of the shadows, we’re listening.