Article first published as Whataburger: A Taste of the South on Blogcritics.
When I’m looking to grab a burger and some fries, I know there’s only one place where I’m sure to be greeted with a Southern twang and a “Hi, darlin’” or a smiling “What can a get ya, honey?” That place is Whataburger. While Whataburger is a fast-food chain restaurant and has much in common with other restaurants of this ilk, it sets itself apart from its competition with its unique Southern charm.
Whataburger’s Southern pride can be traced to its roots. The first Whataburger stand opened in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1950 by Harmon Dobson. Like most American fast-food joints, its beginnings were humble and simple. The stand sold humongous burgers and little else. Dobson’s little stand was soon recognized for its delicious burgers and, over the course of more than fifty years, the trademark A-frame buildings have appeared in locations across the country.
What separates Whataburger from its fast-food brothers of similarly humble origins is where it stands today. To this day, the company remains owned and operated by the Dobson family. The same cannot be said for McDonald’s or Burger King. Another notable feature of Whataburger is that, while it operates as a chain, it does not exist across the entire U.S. One can find a Whataburger in only ten states: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Notice what these states have in common? Every single one of those ten states is located somewhere in the south.
Whataburger’s southern heritage is clearly a characteristic the company is proud of. This pride is brought to my attention every time a commercial appears on TV. Images of sizzling patties are inevitably accompanied by the voice of a male announcer, and his voice embodies the heritage that Whataburger sports. The voice is unequivocally Southern: drawling, slow, and pleasant. This marketing strategy is noticeably different from the strategies of other fast-food burger joints. Commercials for McDonald’s or Burger King feature customers living in indeterminate locations, speaking in neutral dialects.
Conversely, Whataburger’s deliberate use of a Texan accent immediately lets the customers know the restaurant’s origins and what kind of cookin’ to expect. It’s only fitting that this fast-food chain born in the south actively uses a regional dialect to promote food. Can you expect any less from a restaurant from Texas, where state pride comes in spades?
The extent to which one can customize a burger at Whataburger is a testament to the franchise’s commitment to Southern hospitality. Their slogan is “Just Like You Like It” and boy, do they mean it. Behind the counter, a hungry customer can spot spools and spools of multicolored dots- stickers that read “JALAPENOS,” “NO ONIONS,” “EXTRA TOMATOES” and countless other specifications. These stickers, which the cooks slap onto the paper-wrapped burgers, allow for practically endless customization. This welcoming approach toward special orders is uncommon among fast food joints. We’re all familiar with the experience of repeating multiple times what we think is a simple request (no pickles, for example) to a fast-food employee and still ending up with a botched order.
Another aspect of Southernness that Whataburger fiercely promotes is, of course, its menu. While McDonald’s frantically added salads, smoothies, and parfaits to its lineup in order to appease customers watching their waistlines, Whataburger has remained stalwartly Southern in its selection. While Whataburger now has salads as a dining option, this one green choice is dwarfed by the staggering number of distinctly Southern (and, by definition, deliciously unhealthy) selections.
Patrons can dine on chicken and biscuits smothered in red-eye gravy, taquitos stuffed with scrambled eggs and hashbrowns, or crispy fried pies oozing with lemon or cherry filling. It’s almost refreshing to see a fast-food restaurant that doesn’t attempt to build up a façade of healthiness. Whataburger is a burger-and-fry joint, and it doesn’t try to be anything different.
Finally, another feature that sets Whataburger apart as a purveyor of Southern charm is the way in which the food is served. Rather than having you, the customer, wait at the counter to retrieve your food, you have a seat at a booth and an employee will bring your food to your table. The employee will then provide you with napkins, ketchup, salt, pepper, and anything else you may need. And, periodically, you can expect a worker to stop by your table and cheerily ask how everything tastes. Now that’s Southern hospitality that you won’t get at any old burger joint.