When Whataburger releases new items each quarter, corporate chef James Sanchez hops on video conference calls to explain concepts and execution.
Although the task appears routine on the surface, Sanchez embraces it as an honor. The constant opportunity to manage the menu of a roughly 950-unit brand that's been in business for seven decades is not lost upon him. Sanchez—who grew up in San Antonio, the same city as Whataburger's headquarters—has a culinary career that spans more than 30 years, but no position has excited him more than the role he's held since 2018.
"It's a fun, exciting place and it's about coming up with bold flavors and challenging our family members [employees] to execute that burger fresh and hot and delicious for our guests," Sanchez says. "And it's a pretty amazing gig. I think that's the part that I just never emphasize enough. And I'm pretty lucky to have it. So I like to keep that as a motivation and to keep me grounded on where we're at and where we're going next."
The chain's most recent LTO lineup—some recurring, others new—features the Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuit, BLT, Southern Bacon Double, and Banana Pudding Shake. Sanchez and his team arrived at each of these items with a similar, repeatable process.
The culinary group studies trends, examines its food menu board to find gaps, and works hand-in-hand with sauce and protein suppliers to generate ideas. The product development team embarks on a food tour about two to three times per year. They travel to markets—where Whataburger locations are and where they aren't—to taste food items from higher-service restaurants. For instance, a couple of years ago the group journeyed to Atlanta and immersed themselves in the city for three days. The culinary team noticed some attractive butters and honey, leading them to work on a breakfast product with a spicy maple glaze.
"It sometimes takes us about 18 months to start the process of thinking about it, conceptualizing it, putting the thoughts and the parameters of what we want to make, and then finding a place that we can land it on," Sanchez says.
Once a food concept is developed, Sanchez leads an internal process in which multiple versions are tested. Often, the culinary team will use an existing product build and introduce one or two flavors, like the spicy maple glaze. First, they taste it internally during an informal kitchen evaluation. That private session is followed by a weekly meeting, typically Wednesday afternoon, where marketing, operations, supply chain, and other departments come together to hear about Whataburger's latest innovation. If there's viability, the item is sent to the senior leadership team. They sit around the same table and listen to the same food/beverage vision.
"It's a pretty lengthy process to get it on the menu, but it's also very collaborative. It's connected to all avenues of our business and it gives us a really good snapshot of how we can execute it," Sanchez says.
The Southern Bacon Double—made with two beef patties, three pieces of bacon, slices of Monterey Jack and American cheese, shredded cabbage, southern-style sauce, pickles, and onions on a five-inch bun—was first introduced last year. The burger was the result of a food visit to Alabama and serves as Whataburger's take on the state's white barbecue sauce. The cabbage combines with the sauce to create a coleslaw-like texture.
The culinary team crafted the burger with the underlying goal of being authentic to guests who grew up with the flavor. That nostalgia is what Sanchez feels when he eats Whataburger's chorizo, which is a major breakfast staple in San Antonio. Consuming it invokes memories of his grandmother's house and the local taco spot in his childhood neighborhood. In another example, the fast casual rolled out its BBQ Bacon Burger with a black pepper barbecue sauce that took 18-20 iterations to get right.
"Version five or six or 10 was pretty good, but it wasn't that recollection," Sanchez says. "It wasn't that connection to that item as well. That's authentic and that's super important to us. It's super important to me as the stakeholder. I own the process and in the 73 years of us being in existence, on my watch, I'm not going to let us shy away from that."
The Banana Pudding Milkshake, a new item for Whataburger, reminds Sanchez of all the Texas barbecue joints that serve the popular dessert. The burger chain explores 20-30 milkshake flavors per year to find ones that "connect with our model, with our guests, and gives you a reminder of something that is amazing," the executive says. For the longest time, Whataburger had singular flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, but a couple of years ago the brand began to innovate with more ingredients. Another one is the White Chocolate Raspberry Shake, an idea sparked by Sanchez's love for white chocolate raspberry cheesecake in a kitchen where he used to work.
Whataburger took that memory and commercialized it into a flavor profile.
"We want folks to have a wonderful experience when they draw that shake from the straw and it just brings back some memories," Sanchez says. "I can't tell you how many flavors we taste, but when we hit one that we think matches Whataburger, it's a pretty amazing feeling. I feel confident that our guests feel the same way about the banana pudding [milkshake]."
If an LTO performs consistently throughout its quarterly run, then it'll likely return to the menu at some point. As for becoming a permanent fixture, Whataburger measures success compared to its Patty Melt, the No. 1 seller on the All-Time Favorites menu. If the temporary product matches or exceeds Patty Melt sales per week, the discussion begins. The LTO is brought back for a second or third time, and if the positive growth is repeated, then there would be consideration to add to the All-Time Favorites menu.
"When our guests and our family members are shouting for us to bring it back and we have the ability to do that, then it makes an appearance on the All-Time Favorites menu," Sanchez says.
Looking ahead, Whataburger plans to play more in the beverage space with an iced coffee lineup that offers customization. In conjunction with that, the chain is working on breakfast items that would pair well with the drink innovation. Additionally, Whataburger will tinker with long-time menu staples, such as the Chop House Cheddar Burger and the 5-3-1 Burger, which's made with five pickles, three onion rings, and a creamy pepper sauce.
In September, Sanchez and his team will go before a consumer panel to test four new burgers, three chicken sandwiches, three or four breakfast ideas, and four milkshake flavors.
"I am honestly living in the dream job of a chef," Sanchez says.