On our trip to Florida earlier this year, my wife took the first driving shift of the Nashville to Florida leg of the journey. After driving through torrential rains in Northern Alabama and through traffic in Birmingham, she decided she'd had enough and pulled over south of Birmingham to have a bathroom break and to have me drive the rest of the way. She pulled up to a gas station/convenience store that was next door to a Whataburger. Whataburger! One of my all-time favorite burger places! I hadn't been to a Whataburger in probably 12 years. We'd had a large breakfast and it was around noon, but I was far from hungry. But I got to wondering - if there are Whataburgers in Alabama, I wonder if there are any in the Florida panhandle? The simple answer was - yes. We found one in Miramar Beach, not far from our hotel.
Harmon Dobson was a post-World War II entrepreneur in Texas dabbling in diamond trading, shipbuilding and oil drilling. It was 1950 and Dobson had a vision of a hamburger where people would have to take one of his burgers by both hands, bite into it and say, "What - a - burger!" He shared his vision with Paul Burton and promised to finance Burton in the new venture. To get things started, Dobson trademarked the Whataburger name in June of 1950.
Instead of a two ounce "slider" type burger where the meat was frozen before thawing and cooking, Dobson's and Burton's burgers were 4 ounce burgers - fresh ground beef, never frozen. Each Whataburger was going to be topped with fresh veggies - chopped lettuce, three tomato slices, four dill pickle slices, chopped raw onions, mustard and ketchup. And each burger would not be grilled until the customer ordered it.
Harmon Dobson went to a local bakery to get 5-inch buns (instead of the regular 2.5-inch buns). Since 5-inch buns were a new concept, the Dobson and the bakery had to find bun baking trays that were able to accommodate the larger buns. Once that was accomplished, the first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi in August of 1950. Burton made $50 the first day and four days later they sold over 550 burgers. Whataburger was an instant hit.
Pictured right - Harmon Dobson standing outside the original Whataburger stand.
Because of that, Dobson had to go back to the bakery to see if they could make more buns. The bakery couldn't afford to get more of the bun trays, so Dobson financed the purchase of more.
After a year in business, Dobson realized that at 25 cents a burger he was losing money. He proposed raising the price to 30 cents - something that Burton vehemently resisted. Burton and Dobson decided that it was best to part ways, but as part of a severance to Burton, Dobson gave him the rights to future Whataburger franchise locations in San Antonio. Burton eventually put Whataburger locations in San Antonio and ran them up until his death in 1970. Dobson owned the full rights to Whataburger after the break-up.
Dobson raised the price of the burgers to 30 cents, explaining to customers on a sign in front of his business, "Folks, we priced our burgers too low and we lost our shirts. Sorry, but we gotta raise our price to 30 cents." People still came in for Whataburgers at 30 cents each, and they kept coming in a few months later when Dobson was forced to raise the price to 35 cents.
Dobson was a pilot and he used to fly his plane above Corpus Christi with trailing a Whataburger banner, dropping coupons for free Whataburgers. He also realized the importance of eye-catching architecture and colors. He adopted the distinctive orange and white-striped color scheme along with the A-frame structure that would house future Whataburger locations. The first A-frame Whataburger location opened in Odessa, TX in 1960.
Whataburger's first franchisee was awarded to Joe Andrews of Alice, TX in 1953. By that time, Dobson had three Corpus Christi locations and soon opened his fourth in nearby Kingsville, TX. In 1959, Harmon Dobson opened the first Whataburger outside of Texas in Pensacola, FL. By 1967, 40 Whataburger locations were spread from Arizona, Texas, Tennesee and Florida.
In April of 1967, Dobson and a business associate were taking off in Dobson's private plane from a small airport in LaPorte, TX. Something happened during the ascent and the plane crashed killing both men. Harmon Dobson's will stated that he wanted the Whataburger business to continue to grow in the vision he created if anything should happen to him. His wife, Grace, took over the business. But she wasn't interested in the day-to-day operation of the business and subsequent head executives were from outside the Dobson family.
While Whataburger grew over the next 25 years, corporate management lost sight of Harmon Dobson's mission. They introduced breakfast items, salads, soups and sandwiches. The original Whataburger got lost in the mayhem of the menu. Finally in the early 90's, franchisees threatened an uprising with the son of the original franchisee, Joe Andrews, Jr., leading the charge. Sales had dropped over the previous six years, locations needed to be modernized, and many franchisees felt the company had lost focus on its core product - the Whataburger.
In December of 1993, Harmon and Grace Dobson's son, Tom, was unanimously elected as the president and CEO of Whataburger. Almost immediately Tom Dobson instituted changes that included going back to making a "made-to-order" family meal at a fair price. Soon after the younger Dobson took over, Whataburger opened its 500th location. They were named the No. 1 restaurant franchise by the Nation's Restaurant News in 1995.
Pictured right - Tom Dobson
Today, Whataburger's corporate offices are located in San Antonio having moved there in 2009 because of a more plentiful talent pool for corporate employees. Tom Dobson is still the Chairman of the Board of Whataburger with Preston Atkinson serving as the company's C.E.O. There are over 700 Whataburger locations in about a dozen Southern states from Arizona to Florida. Over 600 locations are owned by the Dobson family. Whataburger does over $1 billion in sales annually making them the 8th largest burger chain in the U.S.
The Whataburger in Miramar Beach is right along the main drag, Highway 98, also known as the Emerald Coast Highway (see map). It wasn't far from the Hilton Sandestin Beach where we stayed for a few nights during our visit. It was well after the lunch rush when we pulled into the parking lot and went inside.
This Whataburger location is like many others that I've been to over the past 35 years. It's clean, bright, and comfortable enough for a casual fast food-style restaurant. The only thing is that Whataburger's food is made to order - they give you a number after you order and bring the food out to you.
The menu is on the board behind the front counter. My standard order at a Whataburger is a double-meat with cheese and everything. That's a 1/2 lb. double cheeseburger with the usual lettuce, tomato, pickles, chopped onions, mustard and ketchup that you find on any Whataburger - and the way it's been for over 60 years. They have single, double and triple meat Whataburgers as well as a jalapeno cheese Whataburger, a bacon cheese Whataburger, and an avocado bacon Whataburger served on Texas toast.
They also have a number of specialty burgers at Whataburger including a double meat Whataburger with green chiles, an A-1 Whataburger topped with bacon and A-1 sauce, and a Monterrey-melt double meat Whataburger topped with melted slices of American and Monterrey Jack cheese and a blend of grilled peppers & onions, finished with a dollop of jalapeno ranch dressing. The also have breaded and grilled chicken sandwiches as well as chicken strips and chicken bites.
So, I stepped up to the counter and ordered a double meat Whataburger with everything. Cindy stepped up next and ordered the same thing. Immediately, I said, "Oh, honey. I don't know. That's a big-assed burger."
The lady at the cash register pretty much echoed the same thing. "I don't think you can eat a double meat, girl," she said. Then she showed Cindy that she could get the double meat Whataburger Jr. with cheese. Cindy went with that. She also ordered some of their fries and a vanilla shake.
It was about 10 minutes or so before one of the Whataburger workers came out with our burgers. Double wrapped in yellow paper, the burgers were hot off the grill.
It had been a long time since I'd had a Whataburger but from the first bite it was exactly the taste that I remembered. Flat grilled burger patties, toasted bun, a plethora of toppings including the chopped fresh white onions. It was just a fabulous burger all the way around.
Cindy had to concur. She really liked her double meat Whataburger Jr. She said, "Everything is so fresh and tasty. This would be a great burger even if we were in a regular restaurant. Heck, this is better than a lot of places we've HAD hamburgers in!"
Another thing that I love about Whataburger is their spicy ketchup. When the lady brought out our food she also had a little holder of regular and the spicy ketchup from Whataburger. The spicy ketchup has a minor kick to it - nothing that is too forward or forceful in taste - but enough to let you know that it's got some zip to it. They may it with a red jalapeno puree added to the base. With the fries that Cindy had ordered, I had to dip a couple into the spicy Whataburger ketchup. I even ended up putting some on my burger. It's killer stuff. (I understand that you can get Whataburger spicy ketchup in some grocery stores in the South and Southwest.)
Cindy became a Whataburger convert that day. On our way home through Alabama, we found another Whataburger just north of Birmingham and stopped in there for lunch. We pretty much had the same thing that we had down at Miramar Beach. The consistency within the Whataburger locations is what makes it a great place for a quick burger with no frills. Whataburger is truly one of the most underrated "casual food" burgers in America. I just wish they had them closer to the Midwest.