In Market: Fandom and thievery

Whataburger A-frame design

The Texas tradition

Continues to endure

A few weeks back, I reposted an old column that had a line about how Whataburger won me customer loyalty for life.

While covering a horrific event in Grand Prairie, a Whataburger manager forced a cup of coffee on me that remains the best I’ve ever tasted.

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Little did I know that shortly after I reprinted that column, Whataburger would find itself in the spotlight.

If you’re not familiar with Whataburger, here are a few facts:

• The chain was founded in 1950 by Herman Dobson in Corpus Christi, selling burgers for 25 cents.

• The standard Whataburger is made with mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and diced onions on a toasted five-inch bun, but there are endless variations.

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• The first A-Frame designed Whataburger opened in Odessa in 1961.

• In 1967, after a plane crash claimed the life of Dobson, his wife Grace refused to sell Whataburger, ran the business herself and became chairman in 1969.

• In 2011, William Bassett, a man who provided the deep, gravelly voice of Whataburger for nine years in countless TV and radio commercials and was endlessly parodied, retired.

• The chain is still run by the family and now has more than 800 restaurants.

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My first encounter with Whataburger in Fort Worth was sometime in the 1970s when the location on Hemphill Street opened. It was my favorite in high school and on weekends while working at my granddad’s nearby business.

For some reason, the Whataburger on Beach Street was a big after-concert favorite and not just with my crew. The place could be packed on a late Saturday night, early Sunday morning as partiers wanted something fried on top of all that alcohol.

Whataburger still fulfills that role and not just with music fans. A recent post on the company’s website has photos of U2 band members taking social media photos with police officers at a Whataburger following a concert in either Houston or Dallas.

While Dairy Queen is the default small-town Texas signature fast-food location, Whataburger seems to have carved out a pretty secure place in Texas culture. On the web, I found a pretty entertaining piece on the Study Break website, where a UT student seeks to understand Marcel Proust through his various Whataburger experiences. Sample sentence: “For me, no more effective Proustian trigger exists than the Whataburger No. 1 hamburger.”

Whataburger was also recently the victim of the scourge of our time: fake news.

According to the Associated Press, there was a false report that the chain was going to close all locations by Aug. 1.

The fast food chain took to social media to quash the series of false stories claiming it was going out of business. When clicked, the stories inform the reader that the headline is a prank. Nevertheless, Whataburger posted messages on Facebook and Twitter saying the article “is a hoax” and “we aren’t going anywhere.”

Good thing, because Whataburger has some dedicated fans. On July 14, the esteemed Wall Street Journal took time out from writing stories about why bond prices are falling to check the pulse of the burger chain in San Antonio. Specifically, the Journal uncovered a massive theft operation carried out by Whataburger fans.

Apparently Whataburgerians are so dedicated to the burger chain that they take its “table tents,” the A-frame-styled, orange and white plastic order numbers customers get as they await their food.

According to the Journal article, people steal them, some attempting to acquire a complete set of numbers 1 through 96, others taking their favorite numbers, birth years, etc. Whataburger locations near high schools or colleges are apparently particularly prone to the thefts.

Though I’ve been a Whataburger fan for years, I’d never thought about it until I read the article. I did recall seeing several of the “table-tents” on people’s shelves over the years.

Whataburger doesn’t seem to mind the pilfering, regarding it as free advertising. The company does sell “table-tents” on its company website at $10.99 for a five-pack for those who don’t feel like committing a crime.