By: Cindy Jones

Type: General Entry

Published: August 13, 2008

Updated: July 18, 2019

Whataburger, with headquarters in Corpus Christi, is a family operated business that began in 1950. Harmon Dobson was a young entrepreneur who worked in shipbuilding, oil drilling, and diamond trading before settling down into his life's work: Whataburger. On New Year's Day in 1950, Dobson wrote in his journal that he believed 1950 would be an eventful year for him. In May of that same year, he decided to finance Paul Burton in a small, specialized hamburger joint in Texas. The two men decided on Corpus Christi as the location for opening their new venture. His goal was simple: Make a better burger that took two hands to hold and tasted so good that when you took a bite you would say "What a burger!" Dobson was granted the "Whataburger" trademark by the Texas Secretary of State office on June 23, 1950. The first neon sign would flash in four stages: What…A…Burger…Whataburger.

A Whataburger would not be the standard burger consisting of two ounces of beef on a 2½-inch bun. It was a quarter pound of beef on a 5-inch bun. The Whataburger would consist of a grilled quarter-pound beef patty of 100% beef, fresh lettuce, three slices of tomato, four dill pickles, chopped onions, mustard, and catsup. The meat was fresh, not frozen. The vegetables were fresh. The burger would be cooked exactly the way the customer wanted it. It would not hit the grill until the customer placed the order. Dobson contacted G. M. Atkinson, the manager of the local Rainbo bakery, to order his giant hamburger buns. The five-inch bun was a new concept and the Rainbo bakery did not have pans big enough for the buns. After searching the country for pans, Dobson and Atkinson went in together and found a company that would hand-make a set of 15 pans with eight molds. Whataburger was such a success that within a few weeks, they realized that they would have to pay for the pan mold and order more pans. The first Whataburger was sold through the window of a portable building on August 8, 1950. The location for Whataburger #1 was 2609 Ayers Street, across from Del Mar College, in Corpus Christi. The price of the burger was twenty-five cents. Customers could also order a drink and a bag of chips. Whataburger #1 took in fifty dollars on its first day. Four days later they took in $141.80 and sold 551 burgers. The word was out. Whataburger was a success.

In 1951 the partnership between Dobson and Burton ended when they disagreed over Dobson's decision to raise the price of the hamburger. Both men agreed that Burton would have the franchise rights to all Whataburgers in the San Antonio area. Burton remained a Whataburger operator until his death in 1970. Dobson walked away with control of the remaining Whataburger business. To make the transition in price and not scare away customers Dobson had a huge sign printed with the following message: "Folks, we priced our burgers too low and we lost our shirts. Sorry, but we gotta raise the price to 30 cents." Dobson's hunch that customers would pay a higher price for his burgers became a reality. Customers were amused by the sign and fond of the product. They paid the thirty cents and then thirty-five cents a few months later.

Dobson, an avid pilot, frequently soared through the skies of Corpus Christi pulling a WHATABURGER banner and dropping coupons for free Whataburgers. While flying Dobson realized the importance of eye-catching architecture and signage and liked the idea of being able to see his stores from the air. The orange and white striped A-frame building made its debut with the opening of Whataburger #24 in Odessa in 1961. Dobson's love of flying inspired the color scheme—orange and white are traditionally the colors used on many airport structures.

Within three years after Dobson began selling his distinctive version of the fast-food burger, the first Whataburger located outside of Corpus Christi was opened. Harmon Dobson's fourth burger stand was placed in nearby Kingsville. In 1953 Joe Andrews of Alice, Texas, received the first Whataburger franchise. In 1959 Dobson opened a Whataburger in Pensacola, Florida, the first outside of Texas. By 1967 there were nearly 40 restaurants in four states: Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Arizona. That year Harmon commissioned the official company logo, the "Flying W."

On April 11, 1967, tragedy struck the Whataburger family. Dobson and an associate, Luther John Sneed, took off in Dobson's Cessna Skymaster from an airport in LaPorte heading for Victoria. Immediately after takeoff something went wrong, and the airplane crashed, killing both men instantly. Harmon Dobson was laid to rest in Batesville, Arkansas, next to his parents. In his will Dobson had expressed a desire that the business he created be preserved and continued if at all possible if something should ever happen to him. His wife Grace took over the business, but succeeding company heads were not members of the Dobson family. In 1972 the company opened its 100th restaurant. By 1977 Whataburger had its 200th location. In 1979 the restaurants began serving breakfast in all locations, and original franchise owner Joe Andrews, Sr., coined the slogan, "We build a bigger, better burger." The total number of restaurants reached 300 in 1980. The stores began 24-hour operations in all locations in 1982. During the eighties the company drifted away from its core item, the Whataburger. The menu was changed continuously, sometimes with unfortunate results. With additions of soups, sandwiches, and popcorn salads, where was the Whataburger? In 1993 after a disagreement led to a wedge between franchises and corporate, a crossroad had been reached. Family friend and franchise owner Andrews, Jr., asked the question, "If we were family-owned and family-operated, where was the family?"

On December 15, 1993, Dobson's son Tom was unanimously elected president and chief executive officer of Whataburger, Inc., effective immediately. At the age of forty-three Tom was standing in his father's shoes facing different challenges than Harmon Dobson ever had with Whataburger. There was a need for a new management team. The franchisees were ready for a legal battle over the distribution of vendor rebates. The last six years had seen a decline in sales. Stores were in need of repair and modernization. Many believed that the company had lost its focus on the chief product that had achieved its initial success. Tom realized it was time to get back to concentrating on serving a fresh, made-to-order meal in a family atmosphere at a fair price that mega-chains could not deliver. The new management team quickly made an impact. Marketing improved, and buildings received much-needed makeovers. Franchisees and corporate members became players on the same team again. The chain opened its 500th location in 1995. That year Nation's Restaurant News ranked Whataburger as No. 1 in the nation. On May 6, 1999, the company opened "Whataburger by the Bay," a new flagship restaurant located on Corpus Christi's Shoreline Drive, that included a bronze statue of Harmon Dobson. The company celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2000. As of 2007 there were more than 650 restaurants in 10 states with sales approaching $1 billion annually. Whataburger was the nation's eighth largest burger chain.

Whataburger fans have had Whataburgers sent to them out-of-state via Federal Express, twenty-four couples were married at a Whataburger restaurant on Valentine's Day in 1996, and in 1999 the STS-93 crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia requested Whataburger cookies on board for their July mission. The Seventy-seventh Texas Legislature officially recognized what customers have known for more than 50 years: Whataburger is a state treasure. On April 9, 2001, Rep. Jaime Capelo, (D-Corpus Christi), announced his resolution to recognize the Texas-based hamburger chain as a Texas Treasure.

In 2005, Whataburger mourned the loss of Grace "Lady Grace" Dobson. In November 2008, Tom Dobson announced the decision to relocate the company headquarters from Corpus Christi to San Antonio. In 2011 the company included 22,500 employees, operated over 700 restaurants from Arizona to Florida, and reached $1.3 billion in sales. Whataburger remains a family owned and operated business by Tom, Lynne, and Hugh Dobson.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times, August 6, 2000. Whataburger (http://www.whataburger.com), accessed May 6, 2008. Greg Wooldridge, Whataburger: The Tale of a Texas Icon (Texas: Whataburger, 2000). San Antonio Express-News, November 22, 2008.

Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cindy Jones, “Whataburger,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/whataburger.

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August 13, 2008
July 18, 2019