Easily spotted by the orange and white A-frame rooftop, Whataburger has become an American icon, filling memories of childhood and beyond with 100-percent beef and crispy fried dreams. From its humble beginnings as a burger stand on Ayer’s street in Corpus Christi, Whataburger has become a Southern favorite, and for some, a destination far worth the drive—all looking to wrap their hands around the toasted bun and ready to exclaim, “What a burger!”
And that was the exact goal for Harmon Dobson when the burger joint idea came to him back in 1950. He envisioned a burger he could wrap both hands around that was always cooked fresh to order. It may sound odd to those who have become accustomed to today’s super-sized burger world, but Dobson’s idea was big in a world of burgers not much larger than today’s slider. And his five-inch burgers were a big, delicious hit with passersby. It wasn’t long before he was able to expand his burgeoning business into other locations. During the expansion, he met and married his love and partner in business and life, Grace Williamson. Together, the couple entered the whirlwind company that Whataburger had become, and by 1960 the Dobsons had opened seventeen Whataburgers across the Southern U.S.
The sixties would prove to be a decade of both growth and heartache for the Whataburger family that now included three children—Tom, Lynne, and Hugh. The familiar orange and white stripes were added to the chain in 1961, making it even more recognizable to the region where it had become a household name. The Dobsons, by much request, had finally expanded their burger laden menu to include a side of fries and a fried pie to round out the meal. Only growing in popularity, it seemed the Dobsons were destined for a happily ever after as they watched both their business and their children thrive.
In 1967, their world came to a screeching stop. Their patriarch and founder of Whataburger, Harmon Dobson, a seasoned pilot, died when his Cessna Skymaster crashed. Beside Grace and her children, customers and employees grieved the loss of the father, husband, friend, and beloved businessman from Texas. Still shaken from her loss and with help, Grace picked up where her husband had left off, keeping the business in the family as her husband had wished.
Grace seemed to have the same business savvy her husband had had. Under her leadership, the company continued to grow, more rapidly than ever before. In 1971 Whataburger opened their very first drive-thru, enabling customers to grab their favorite burger, along with (introduced later) a Whataburger Jr. and onion rings. By the end of the decade the number of locations had soared throughout twelve states and more than 200 locations.
By the early 1990’s, Grace had led Whataburger to nearly 500 locations. At this point, she had served her time faithfully and was ready to retire. Continuing the tradition, Grace and Harmon’s son Tom took over the family business. With the same hard-working ethics of his parents, Tom led Whataburger far beyond number 500, further expanding its growing menu, and opening Whataburger by the Bay in 1999, the Whataburger of all Whataburgers and a fitting tribute to the legacy his parents had built. And no tribute would be complete without a life-size bronze statue of the man that had started it all.
As the company, along with the rest of the world, turned the page on a new century, they celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Harmon’s first Whataburger stand in Corpus Christi. Expanding the business further into the new millennium, the legacy continued, but without the guidance of their mother, Grace. In 2005, Texas and the Whataburger family mourned the loss of the woman known to many as “Lady Grace.” Although her loss to a hard battle with cancer left a lasting impact on Tom and his siblings, Lynne and Hugh, their commitment to the family business did not waver.
Today the Dobson family still oversees the running of their burger empire—a far cry from the humble burger stand in 1950, but the burgers are still hot and freshly made to order, needing both hands to wrap around the toasted bun. More than 700 locations now span the U.S. And while it may no longer be just a Southern favorite, throughout the South customers are still proclaiming, “What a burger!”
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