In 1950, Harmon Dobson and Paul Burton were looking to open a hamburger restaurant. Dobson's goal was to "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!'" In June 1950, Dobson was granted the Whataburger trademark. In August of that year they opened their first location on Ayers Street in Corpus Christi, Texas, across from Del Mar College. The store sold burgers for 25 cents, and also sold drinks and chips.
Whataburger is an American privately held, regional fast food restaurant chain, headquartered and based in San Antonio, Texas, that specializes in hamburgers. The company, founded by Harmon Dobson and Paul Burton, opened its first restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950. Family-owned by the Dobsons until 2019, the chain is now managed by a private equity firm along with the Dobson family still holding a small stake.
Whataburger is sometimes confused with the What-A-Burger (hyphenated) chain of family-operated restaurants in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The first What-A-Burger store opened in 1950 by entrepreneur Jack Branch near Newport News, Virginia, at Newport News Circle (intersection of Jefferson Avenue and U.S. Route 258) in the former Warwick County. Branch's first location preceded the first Texas Whataburger restaurant slightly; the move took place after a modernization project involving the traffic circle. What-A-Burger and Whataburger were unaware of each other's existence several states apart until around 1970, when there was some correspondence. However, no legal actions took place until 2002–2003, when both companies sued each other over the alleged trademark infringement. The Court of Appeals, in 2004, eventually decided the Texas Whataburger had a legitimate trademark; but the Virginia chain did not harm the much larger Texas-based chain in any way or any reasonable public confusion: "There is no evidence — nor can we imagine any — that consumers are currently likely to be confused about whether the burgers served by Virginia W-A-B come from Texas or Virginia."
In 1951, Burton and Dobson ended their partnership after arguments concerning Dobson's price raise of the burger from 25 to 30 cents. Burton settled with owning the Whataburger franchises in San Antonio, Texas. Months later, prices for burgers were raised to 35 cents. In 1952, Dobson opened a location in Kingsville, Texas, the first store outside of Corpus Christi. In 1953, Joe Andrews, Sr. became the first non-founder franchise owner with a location in Alice, Texas. In 1959, the first Whataburger restaurant outside Texas opened in Pensacola, Florida.
By 1960, there were stores operating across Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. Inspired by his love for flying, Dobson designed the orange and white striped A-frame store in Odessa, Texas, in 1961.
In 1962, the company added French fries and hot pies to its menu. In 1963, it expanded to Arizona and totaled 26 stores. In 1965, it estimated selling 15,000 burgers daily in the Texas Coastal Bend area. In 1967, the company commissioned the "Flying W" company logo, and the company had expanded to 40 restaurants in four states.
On April 11, 1967, Dobson and an associate died in an airplane crash, and Dobson's widow, Grace, took control of the business. In 1969, Grace became chairman of the board.
In 1971, the company opened its first drive-through store, and in 1972, it opened its 100th store. In 1974, the A-frame design was changed to a "Modern A-Frame" to accommodate drive-thrus and larger dining rooms.
In 1980, the company opened its 300th store. In 1982, three Corpus Christi stores began 24/7 service. In 1983, the company added Breakfast on a Bun, the Whatachick'n sandwich and breakfast taquitos to its menu. In 1987, it opened its 400th store, and also shut down operations in California.
In 1993, Harmon and Grace Dobson's son, Tom, became the CEO and President. The menu expanded, offering Whatameal packages, cookies and biscuits, and chicken strips. The company celebrated its 500th store opening in 1995, and was noted as the country's eighth-largest hamburger chain.
On May 6, 1999, the company opened "Whataburger by the Bay" on Shoreline Drive in Corpus Christi. It is the largest Whataburger store at 6,000 square feet (560 m ). The site includes a life-size bronze statue of Harmon Dobson.
On August 8, 2000, Whataburger celebrated its 50th anniversary with 575 operating stores. In 2001, during the 77th Texas Legislative Session, a bill was passed proclaiming Whataburger to be a Texas Treasure.
In 2003, it hired Austin-based advertising firm McGarrah Jessee, which created an advertising campaign featuring the gravelly voice of Ohio actor William Bassett. In 2007, the company achieved 700 stores in ten states with annual revenue of $1 billion.
After Hurricane Ike hit the Texas Coast in 2008, the company began considering moving its headquarters from Corpus Christi. On Friday November 21, 2008, the company announced it was permanently moving the headquarters to San Antonio, and that the current Corpus Christi office would remain open indefinitely to help ease the transition. The company chose to permanently relocate to San Antonio because of a larger talent pool for potential employees, increased protection from hurricanes, and office space that is considered to be cost-efficient.
In 2009 the company moved from its long time base in Corpus Christi to a new headquarters at 300 Concord Plaza Drive, a 140,000-square-foot (13,000 m ) building in San Antonio.
By March 2009 the company purchased the Concord Plaza development from HDG Mansur. According to Whataburger officials, the company chose Concord Plaza due to proximity to neighborhoods and schools attractive to employees and proximity to San Antonio International Airport. Tesoro, which leased space in the development, was moving to another facility at the time Whataburger bought the building. The company planned to move 250 jobs in the corporate sector to San Antonio, with over 60% of the employees coming from Corpus Christi and the remainder hired locally.
In October 2011, the company changed its television ads from Bassett's voiceovers to "documentary-style ads employees and customers using their own words to describe what makes Whataburger special." By the end of the year, it had 728 stores operating in ten states. The Dobson family owned 611 stores, and the other "117 are owned and operated by about 25 franchisees."
Whataburger was known for many years for its distinct A-framed orange-and-white-stripe-roofed buildings. The first A-frame restaurant was built in Odessa, Texas, and is now a historical landmark. The site is scheduled to be demolished in 2019 and transformed into a "more modern" building.
On May 16, 2019 American City Business Journals reported that Whataburger confirmed it has hired Morgan Stanley for a possible sale of the company.
On June 14, 2019, the Dobson family sold its majority stake in the company to BDT Capital, a Chicago-based investment company. The companies cited long term expansion plans as one reason for the sale. Much of the current leadership will remain, but they will take on new roles within the company. Ed Nelson, currently serving as chief financial officer and controller, was promoted to president. The company said that Whataburger's headquarters will remain in San Antonio.
In mid-March 2020, many restaurants had to abandon in-room dining to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Customers can still make their orders through drive-thru, take-away or pick-up service.
On August 1, 2020, Ed Nelson was promoted to CEO of Whataburger.