Whataburger sells out – or maybe not

Image credit: Denise Mattox/flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The big news over the past few days has not been in politics, but that yet another famed Texas cultural icon and institution, Whataburger, has been sold to those evil damned Yankees! A Chicago- based investment bank, BDT Partners, purchased a majority stake in Whataburger from the Dobson family for a reported $6 billion. I have to confess that I didn’t pay much attention some weeks back when the news went out that the Dobson family had retained the services of Morgan Stanley to look at financing options for future growth and expansion of the chain. The news, however, that the family-owned and operated chain had cut a deal with a firm like BDT Partners caused many Texans, including yours truly, to think that Doom was Near.

What I love about Whataburger

As a nearly native Texan, my earliest memories of Whataburger were driving past a Whataburger store in Spring Branch on Long Point in the early 1970s. The distinct orange colored architecture was there, but my family didn’t eat much there because the store was a bit farther away than other dining options. Still, I did stop by from time to time, where I fell in love with the fact that the burgers were big burgers. I also have always enjoyed that slight zing of an aftertaste that the Whataburger mustard throws at you as you bite into the burger. I have always enjoyed their french fries, which I consider perhaps second only to McDonald’s fries. The Whataburger fries have always been fresh, potatoey, and with just the right amount of salt to make you want to eat enough of them to make sure you do a great job at hardening up your arteries.

Yet for me, the most powerful weapon in the Whataburger arsenal is their Breakfast on a Bun, a breakfast sandwich which I like with a sausage patty (they also can be ordered with bacon instead of a sausage patty). I also order mine “ranchero,” which means the sandwich comes with jalapenos. The sandwich, when ordered with an order or two of hash brown sticks, will easily get you through the day. Amongst the worst of my sins in this world are that I confess to have voluntarily surrendered unimaginable amounts of money to Whataburger on this combo.

Other aspects of the Whataburger experience I’ve enjoyed are that I can never recall ever having walked into a Whataburger and to have seen it dirty in any way. I’ve always admired their cleanliness. Another potent weapon in the Whataburger arsenal is that many Whataburger stores are open 24 hours. This little nugget of insight has been inevitably discovered by millions during their rites of passage during their teens and twenties. The numbers of late-night party animals who have gotten a burger fix at Whataburger over the decades is incalculable. Perhaps the most famous late night stop in Whataburger history occurred just two years ago, here in Houston, when U2 finally found what they were looking for at Whataburger.

But what about the future of Whataburger?

This is where the ketchup is going to hit the mustard. One acquaintance of mine noted that BDT Partners has a history of acquiring interests in family-owned restaurant chains like Einstein Bros Bagels and Krispy Kreme donuts, and that the last time he went into an Einstein Bros Bagels, he wasn’t all that impressed with the restaurant or service. Other die-hard Houstonians and Texans I know asserted that anything that reeks of Chicago ownership, like the United Airlines merger with Houston based Continental Airlines, hasn’t turned out all that well.

Wary jokes about Whataburger’s new Chicago-based owners ordering up menu changes abound. Fears of new Whatadog foot-long hot dogs or Whatadeepdishpizza aside, this is clearly a big moment for Whataburger as a company. In my mind, the Dobson family has run the business in a fairly conservative manner over the decades. For instance, Whataburger has been conservative in offering new menu items over the years, rolling then out and adding to the menu a little bit at a time. After 60 or so years in business, the chain started selling its sauces in HEB grocery stores.

The news accounts of the deal between the Dobson family and BDT Partners leave much to wonder about, and that (outside of the fact that BDT Partners aren’t a Texas firm) seems to provoke more anxiety than anything else about where Whataburger is going. Texas Monthly noted that BDT Partners doesn’t even have a website unless one counts this. One might suppose that if BDT Partners and Whataburger team up to come up with a solid growth plan while keeping the quality and identity that Whataburger is famous for, then maybe Whataburger’s best days are still in front of us. Whataburger itself has gone to social media to reassure fans that their business strategy is not going to change.

Maybe. I will say that I stopped by a Galleria area Whataburger yesterday afternoon, a location that I’ve known to be there for the past 30 – 35 years. They got my order just right, and they delivered it to me in 3 1/2 minutes. I plan on waiting a few months before going to eat at the Big W again. The proof will be in the bag the next time I drive in.