The untold truth of Whataburger

Whataburger might not have quite the same brand recognition as some of America's big hitter burger chains but that's not to say it hasn't enjoyed something of a success story since its opening almost 70 years ago. The chain is known for a few defining characteristics in particular: for its exclusivity to the southeastern and southwestern U.S. states; the classic A-framed buildings which are used for its restaurants; and its unmistakable, iconic orange-and-white color scheme.

Look past the basics, however, and you'll find a whole new story behind Whataburger. It's a story of Texan fanatics, of African mountains, of space travel, and politicians and guns and — obviously — of burgers. You may not know it as intimately as you do Burger King or McDonald's or any other gargantuan fast food megacorporation, but that doesn't mean it's not a story worth knowing. This is the untold truth of Whataburger.

A bigger burger

Whataburger's story begins in 1950, when founder Harmon Dobson opened a burger joint on Ayers Street in Corpus Christi, Texas. Dobson was an entrepreneur who had worked countless different jobs over the course of his life, including shipbuilding, oil drilling and diamond trading. But it was fast food that would be his calling. The name for his restaurant came from pretty much exactly where you'd expect: He wanted to create a burger that was so big that, when a customer picked it up, they'd exclaim: "What a burger!"

Success didn't come quickly. Dobson only made $191 over his first three days of business, but things soon turned around — the size of the restaurant's burgers (which were five-inch rather than the much smaller burgers served at most places) began to draw in more and more business. On his fourth day of business, he brought in $141.80 and sold 551 burgers.

36,864 ways to make a burger

Considering there are only eight burgers on the Whataburger menu, you may think there aren't too many options when it comes to how yours will be served — but you would be very, very wrong. In 2009, the company launched a month-long campaign boasting that there are 36,864 ways to make a Whataburger, once you add in all the special requests you can make, such as grilled onions, jalapenos, triple meat, and extra cheese.

Indeed, customization has been a part of the Whataburger brand for years, and has been something of a point of pride for the chain. Customers at Whataburger get to define their burger's characteristics from the bread, to the meat, to the size, to the toppings, with each burger made to order. Other fast food chains might have hopped on the customization bandwagon in more recent years, but it was arguably Whataburger that did it first.

Whataburger vs. What-A-Burger

We wouldn't blame you for wanting to try out a Whataburger. A fully-customizable, decently-sized burger from a relatively mid-sized chain that isn't just your average, everyday BK or McDonald's? Why not, right? Well, if you are considering it — just make sure you end up at the right Whataburger.

If you live in Virginia or the Carolinas, you might find yourself at a chain of burger joints called What-A-Burger. In fact, it's the latter chain — opened by a Virginian entrepreneur named Jack Branch — who chose the name first, causing a little consternation between the two chains when they discovered each other in 1970.

The two restaurants ended up discussing a potential soft merger but settled for a co-existence agreement in which What-A-Burger would deck out their restaurants in subdued colors, while Whataburger would continue using its bright orange paint scheme. A court case brought to the Court of Appeals in 2004 reaffirmed that the two chains could co-exist peacefully, and all parties involved remained satisfied. A situation that usually ends up as a lengthy court case, settled with a nod and a handshake. Not so bad, is it?

It's a Texan icon

Whataburger has locations all across the American South, but it's Texas in particular that holds a particular affection for the burger chain. Texans loved burgers long before Whataburger arrived on the scene (in fact, many locals claim the first hamburger was created in East Texas in 1904) but ever since its foundation the residents of America's biggest state have held a particular love for the fast food world's original big burger.

The chain's popularity in Texas has turned it into something of a cultural icon. So much so that it became a point of contention in the state's 2018 senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O-Rourke, the latter of whom was dubbed a "Triple Meat Whataburger liberal" by his rival. 

Many were shocked to find, however, that a study in 2017 suggested that In-N-Out had taken Whataburger's place as the most popular fast food chain in Texas. Whataburger responded via Twitter to the claim — by demanding a recount.

On top of the world

McDonald's might have the Big Mac. Burger King may have the Whopper. But Whataburger has the sky itself. At least, that's the argument you could make thanks to an effort made in 2010 on the part of father and son duo Jerry and Hudson Baird. Jerry, the owner of eight Whataburger restaurants, took a flag emblazoned with the chain's logo up to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and unfurled it proudly once he got there.

Kilimanjaro is no easy climb (only 40 percent of the 25,000 people who attempt to reach its 19,340 foot summit every year actually succeed) so the corporate brass at Whataburger can only have been chuffed to see the Bairds succeed — and carry off a stunt which most fast food chain marketing teams can only dream of. Baird left the Whataburger flag at the peak before returning back down the mountain; but whether it's still there remains something of a mystery.

Space cookies

There's only one way to go for a burger chain that's topped one of the world's tallest mountains — and that's up. Luckily, the sky isn't the limit for Whataburger. In 1999, the STS-93 crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia (an earlier expedition than the ill-fated mission for which that name would eventually become synonymous) requested that cookies purchased from Whataburger would accompany them on their July mission.

STS-93 was a historic mission in many ways: it was the first in space shuttle history to be commanded by a woman, it had been the shortest scheduled mission since 1990, and it constituted a vital opportunity for NASA to monitor the growth of plants and biological cells in orbit, as well as the effects on microgravity levels caused by on-orbit workouts. Let's not kid ourselves here, though — the real game-changer of STS-93 was getting cookies to go where no cookie has gone before.

The WhataGames

Back on Earth, Whataburger has found a slightly (but only slightly) more subdued celebration of all things Whataburger than literally firing its food into space: the WhataGames. Every other year, "Family Members" — that is, employees — from Whataburger restaurants across the country gather together to take part in three days of intense cooking competitions. A restaurant is shut down for the duration and fake guests are brought in to place orders (as a kind of simulation of a one-hour lunch rush) and test the competitors on their accuracy, skill and friendliness.

A team of hawk-eyed judges watch as employees are made to tackle difficult orders, picky customers and other similar issues, making sure orders are completely accurate and that there's always a smile on everyone's face. Elsewhere, teams can compete on topics such as Whataburger history and culture in a game show-style environment. And don't worry too much if this all sounds like something you'd normally expect to see in some sort of mediocre dystopian novel about a world caught in the grip of ubiquitous evil hyper-corporations — team members can win prizes of up $5,000 in cash, which just about makes it all marginally less creepy.

Keeping it holstered

Rather famously, Texas has some fairly lax laws when it comes to firearms. Holders of certain licences are able to openly carry handguns in public spaces all across the state, with only a few notable exceptions applying, such as on university campuses. Whataburger made headlines in 2015, however, when it made a point of standing up to the state's laws on the open carrying of weapons.

The chain made an announcement reminding the people of Texas that it does not allow customers to openly carry guns in any of their restaurants, with CEO Preston Atkinson putting the rule down to customers and employees complaining about being uncomfortable around people who are visibly carrying firearms. This came after Texas' governor Greg Abbott signed a new law enabling Texans to flaunt their weapons at will. Despite their restraints on open carry, though, Whataburger does allow the concealed carrying of licences weapons in its restaurants.

The FLOTUS burger

Further testament to the popularity of Whataburger with Texan residents — and perhaps a precursor to that whole Cruz/O'Rourke kerfuffle — was the visit of Melania Trump and Karen Pence to a branch of the chain back in 2017. After meeting with victims of Hurricane Harvey, Trump and Pence stopped by at Whataburger for lunch. Public institutions across Texas scrambled to heap praise on the two women for successfully taking part in the PR stunt, with the Corpus Christi PD boasting that "@Flotus knows a good burger" and the city's official Twitter account pointing out that Whataburger is a "hometown classic."

Others, many of whom had previously enjoyed Whataburger's off-kilter social media antics, criticized the restaurant's official Twitter account for welcoming Trump and Pence into their restaurant. Whether the other Trump — famously a fan of McDonald's above pretty much everything else — had anything to say about the visit remains unconfirmed.

Secret menus

Yes, of course Whataburger has a secret menu. Almost everywhere does, nowadays. There are a whole load of things you can get from Whataburger if you take the initiative to ask, starting with the burgers themselves. They're fully customizable, remember? That means if you ask for three heaps of pickles inside two buns, or fries, or — well, basically anything at all... you'll get it.

But if you want to stick with the "official" secret menu, you've got the vegetarian burger, made with a hash brown patty. The grilled cheese sandwich is a decent choice for anyone on a budget, while "The Hulk" is a green combination of Powerade and Vault soda. Or you could go for the Triple Triple, or chicken and waffles, or the honey BBQ chicken strip sandwich. Are you getting the idea here? Customization means customization, and that means anything. That's kind of the whole point of Whataburger. Step inside your local branch, ignore that menu on the wall, and just go wild instead.