TEXAS (KXAN) — Tuesday marked the inaugural National Whataburger Day, an ode to the orange and white stripes that have been a part of Texas history for more than 70 years. As customers and enthusiasts of the beloved chain enjoy their free burgers Tuesday, here’s a walkthrough of the company’s 73-year history.
Harmon Dobson’s introductory vision for what was to become Whataburger was one idea: serving a burger so large that it took two hands to hold, according to Whataburger’s historic documents. His hope was that those who would taste his burger would say “what a burger!” in response, inspiring the future business’ namesake.
On Aug. 8, 1950, at a burger stand on Ayers Street in Corpus Christi, Whataburger was born. Since that lone stand along the coast, the business has grown to nearly 900 locations across the United States.
The business saw strong success, and Harmon expanded it to other markets in Texas. At the end of the decade, Dobson opened the 21st Whataburger in Pensacola, Florida, marking the first to open outside of Texas, per historic documents.
In the early 1960s, Whataburger built the first of what would become the business’ iconic, orange-and-white-striped A-frame restaurants in Odessa. In 1962, the menu expanded to incorporate both French fries and hot pies.
In 1967, Dobson died in a plane crash, leaving his wife, Grace, to take over the business. Throughout the 1970s, Grace helped the business double its locations, with more than 200 restaurants operating.
In 1971, Whataburger debuted its inaugural drive-thru location. New menu items also came in the 1970s, such as the Whataburger Jr. and toppings like jalapeños and onion rings.
Late in 1980, Whataburger celebrated its 300th restaurant. The business also adopted a new, 24/7 operating template at three Corpus Christi locations in 1982. By the end of the decade, Whataburger had 440 different locations in service.
In the 1990s, Harmon and Grace’s son, Tom Dobson, took over as president and CEO of Whataburger. Under his leadership, new menu items — such as the Whatameal, the A.1. Thick and Hearty Burger, cookies, biscuits and chicken strips — joined the burger joint’s lineup.
Whataburger by the Bay opened in Corpus Christi on May 6, 1999, as a means of paying tribute to the business’ upcoming 50th anniversary. The location paid tribute to founder Harmon Dobson with a life-size, bronze statue.
As the business celebrated 50 years on Aug. 8, 2000, Whataburger had 575 restaurants open. Come 2001, the 77th Texas Legislature deemed Whataburger a “Texas Treasure.”
New items joined the menu in the early 2000s, such as the Whataburger patty melt and its honey BBQ chicken strip sandwich. In 2005, Grace Dobson passed away, and Whataburger relocated its home office from Corpus Christi to San Antonio in 2009.
Heading into the 2010s, Whataburger had more than 800 restaurants “that spanned every state from Arizona to Florida,” per historic documents. In 2019, Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners “acquired a majority interest in Whataburger,” with Ed Nelson taking over as president that same year.
During its 70th anniversary year in 2020, more than 850 restaurants were operational, with expansions into new markets such as Kansas City, Nashville and Colorado Springs. That brought Whataburger’s business footprint to 14 states.