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    The Whataburger Way

  • Little known outside the South, Whataburger rides passionate consumer loyalty and slow and steady growth into quick service’s upper ranks.

    Whataburger’s signature burger and fries have earned the brand an impressive base of passionate consumers across the south.

    “Whereas most operations close at 10 p.m. and reopen at 11 a.m. the next day, Whataburger has an extra 13 hours to make an impression,” Cardwell says.

    In the Dallas market, Cardwell says, Whataburger is “single-handedly responsible” for residents’ slow response to In-N-Out Burger, a similarly heralded chain in its home state of California.

    “I think people go to In-N-Out Burger and they think it’s good, but say, ‘We already have Whataburger,’” Cardwell says. “Plus, Texans are pretty protective of their brands.”

    How to keep an old brand relevant

    In recent years, Whataburger has continued its push to retain relevancy in the increasingly heated quick-service marketplace.

    Over the last three years, Whataburger has introduced six “All-Time Favorite” sandwiches to its menu, such as the Chop House Cheddar Burger and Whataburger Patty Melt. It also launched a 20-item 550 Calories or Less Menu, an effort to appease health-conscious customers. Even the chain’s cinnamon roll comes in at less than 550 calories.

    “It’s not a diet food that tastes like a diet food,” Rutledge says.

    The company has also rolled out more Latin-flavored items, an effort to appeal to the South’s large Hispanic population and Americans’ growing attraction to bold flavors. Recent introductions include the Monterey Melt burger and a red jalapeño-infused spicy ketchup.

    These progressive extensions, however, haven’t ushered Whataburger into unfamiliar territory. By and large, the company remains targeted and confident.

    “We’re not going to serve pizza because that’s not what we do,” Rutledge says. “And we’re still going to make the burger the same way it was made in the 1950s.”

    For each daypart, Whataburger’s customer feedback tools assess the three essentials: quality of food, speed of service, and friendliness. Follow-up action is taken against low-performing stores, while high performers and those with improvements earn incentives.

    “The whole key is taking care of our customers day in and day out,” Rutledge says. “Are they getting that ‘wow’ moment that proves we’re not just another burger store on the corner?”

    “To do the volume we do, the food has to be great, not good,” Atkinson adds. “The people have to be great, not good.”

    For the first time in more than a decade, Whataburger is also enhancing its physical look.

    Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, some Whataburger outlets veered from the company’s signature orange-and-white color scheme in an effort to stand out in cluttered commercial strips. Some units welcomed blue trim, while others added neon for splashes of eye-catching pop. Now Whataburger is reversing that trend and has committed to embracing its roots and a consistent look across the system. Last year, the chain began a two-year reimaging project of more than 600 stores. Fresh paint is returning stores to Whataburger’s historical orange-and-white color palette, while the addition of Austin stone to the outside of buildings provides the restaurants a natural touch.

    “Customers are clapping their hands with their pocketbooks,” Atkinson says of the re-imaging effort, which is about 50 percent complete and on pace for a 2014 finish.

    Loyal customers are also applauding the company’s growing use of social media after an initially slow adoption. Whataburger’s Facebook page reached one million fans last January, less than two years after its launch. The company has since utilized Twitter and Instagram to run contests, share news, and gauge customer sentiment. For instance, when Whataburger ended its limited-time run with spicy ketchup last spring, the social media response pushed the company to reintroduce the condiment as a permanent fixture.

    “These three platforms are the most popular with our customers, so we think it’s important to meet our fans where they are and join the conversations already taking place rather than trying to create a conversation where one doesn’t exist,” Atkinson says.

    The increased social media presence proved useful in April when Whataburger ventured into the retail world for the first time with the bottling of its popular condiments: Fancy Ketchup, Spicy Ketchup, and Original Mustard. The products are available exclusively at all Texas and Mexico H-E-B stores.

    “Like a teenager who won’t take no for an answer, our customers kept asking us to get into the retail space so they could get a little more love from Whataburger all day long,” Atkinson says.

    True to Whataburger form, however, the move into retail wasn’t rushed. Whataburger prepared for years to understand retail’s sales and innovation cycles and to establish the necessary retail infrastructure.

    More of the same

    As an outside observer, Tristano admires Whataburger’s persistence and adherence to a consistent growth strategy.

    “Whataburger’s a concept that sticks to what it knows and what it has learned over the last 60 years,” Tristano says. “It knows where its wheelhouse is and doesn’t try to be all things to all people.”

    In any given week, Rutledge says, the Whataburger office will field about 100 phone calls from past diners or prospective franchisees inquiring about new restaurants and expansion. With favorable sales gains and consistent interest, it would be easy for Whataburger executives to push the company beyond its comfort zone, hurry development, and chase the dollar. But Rutledge says that’s not the Orange way.

    “We’re not out there trying to put dots on maps and we’ll never be the brand opening 100 stores a year,” he says. “We want to be fiscally responsible with the Dobsons’ money.”

    The company remains content to grow at a sustainable pace. Last year, for instance, Whataburger added 12 units, a modest 1.6 percent uptick over 2011’s count. The chain has executed a similar game plan in 2013, and leadership promises a consistent philosophy.

    We’re solid in the 10 states we’re in right now and feel we have a lot of real estate to grow [within those states],” Atkinson says. “In the interim, we’ll just send [hopeful franchisees] a bottle of ketchup.”