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Deep in the Heart: Whataburger's Long History of Success and Brand Identity

By: Michele Wood

They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and that seems to include the brand loyalty to Texas-born products. If you are a Texan, or you know Texans, you have probably heard them extoll the incomparable virtues of Whataburger. Texans not only prefer Whataburger to other fast food options, they are willing to go down, Alamo-style, defending it. As one Vice News columnist writes, “They will pry my Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit from my cold, dead hands.”

What is it about Whataburger that has inspired such devotion? To understand, we need to look back at the history of the founder, Harmon Dobson, and how he came to build the quintessential Texas burger company. Like many great Texans, Dobson was born somewhere else. He grew up on a small farm in Arkansas and started college at the University of Missouri. Unfortunately, the pressures of the Great Depression were too great on the farm so Dobson had to drop out and return home to help.

Once the farm was stable, he began a decade of traveling adventures, starting as an apprentice iron worker in 1934, moving on to shipbuilding in New York at the start of World War II, and then to North Africa in 1942 to do pipefitting, scrapyard work, and cable rigging for Bell Telephone. In what is now Eritrea, Dobson was hired to help build a naval base where he worked on hangars, radio towers, and tanks. The work was so intense that his typically-wordy journal entries often only contained a single entry for the day: “Worked.”

Dobson next went to Egypt to work on the Suez Canal, and then he was off to Bahrain to help build an oil refinery. It was in Bahrain that he was put in charge of mess hall construction and management, getting his first exposure to food service, providing over 750 meals per day.

When the war ended in 1945, he gratefully returned home to Arkansas. Once stateside, Dobson’s entrepreneurial instincts blossomed. Realizing that returning GI’s would need cars, but that manufacturers were behind in retrofitting factories from military production, he began buying up used cars. Soon he had a profitable used car business.

With the dealership profits he bought into a quarry, and then used income from that to begin oil prospecting. He expanded his car dealership to include truck fleets, and got himself a pilot’s license and his own small plane, which helped him travel back and forth to his businesses.

1950 proved to be an auspicious year for Dobson. He was traveling to Texas occasionally to invest in more oil ventures, and he was getting familiar with the state. It was in this year that he decided to partner with hamburger expert Paul Burton to create a burger stand. Burton and Dobson scouted locations for their new business, eventually deciding on Corpus Christi along the Gulf Coast.

Corpus made sense for the new venture for several reasons. In 1926, the port opened. In 1941, the largest naval air station in the country was completed there, and in 1950, a causeway connecting Corpus to Padre Island opened, creating a vibrant metro area full of shipping activity, military personnel and families, and tourists headed for the beach.