In April 2001, a joint resolution passed the Texas House and Senate that declared Whataburger, the state’s beloved fast-food chain, to be a “Texas Treasure.” In the most Texan fashion imaginable, the bill honoring the burger institution was introduced by the state chair of the Texas Public Health Committee. “They deserve credit for capturing the hearts — and taste buds — of millions of Texans, including many in the House of Representatives,” Rep. Jaime Capelo said in the preamble to the vote. (The measure passed with bipartisan support.)
Nearly 20 years later, it remains true that across Texas’ political disparate spectrum, Whataburger may be the only thing that Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke could both admit to loving. But late last week, the state’s devotion to Whataburger came under serious strain when the 69-year-old, family-owned company sold its controlling interest to a Chicago-based investment firm. The news inspired all measures of betrayal-themed responses. “Whataburger’s been sold to the Yanks,” Texas Monthly offered. “Whatadisaster,” read one Houston-area headline. On Twitter, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt suggested that fans affected by the sale unite to buy the franchise back and to add kolaches to the menu. (Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded to Watt by tweeting a picture of George W. Bush driving a pick-up truck with the caption, “Get in J.J., We’re saving Whataburger.”) Elsewhere, memes depicting heartbreak and offense were circulated. “182 men didn’t die at The Alamo just so we could give @Whataburger over to Chicago,” went another representative tweet.
This ferocious display of grief shouldn’t be surprising. Though Texan pride itself may be infamous and intense, strongly felt passion for regional fast food is practically a national rite. After all, regional chains are the unsung heroes of the fast-food industry; they dwell in semi-obscurity nationally, capturing the quirks and particularities of an area. They don’t seek out mass appeal in the way a national chain like McDonald’s or Burger King does. Instead, a three-way mishmash of chili, spaghetti and cheese at Skyline Chili makes sense to an Ohioan in the way that a blueberry biscuit at Bojangles makes sense to someone from the Southeast.
One overarching irony is that fast-food chains are frequently characterized as corporate and impersonal. But what their ubiquity breeds is familiarity and what their all-hours accessibility creates is the opportunity for ritual. Growing up in Texas, my Whataburger ritual took place in high school when, almost without fail, my friends and I would pile into our cars and drive to Whataburger every weekend night. We’d arrive at 11 p.m., when the chain would start serving breakfast and we’d order taquitos — beautiful, eggy, cheesy concoctions wrapped in warm tortillas and served with branded picante sauce that’s so good it’s sold in local grocery stores.
If we had enough time to spare before our curfews, my friends and I would go inside to eat them. The cashier would hand us small numbered plastic table tents to hold while we waited for our orders, markers that, if you were 16, you might sneak into your pocket to decorate your room with later. Then we’d all jam into a booth and devour our taquitos and talk about the otherworldly basketball exploits of Hakeem Olajuwon or the unremarkable drama of our romantic lives. If we were running behind schedule, there was always the drive-thru. And if the drive-thru line was packed because of a concert, a high school football game, the rodeo or the frequent 11 p.m. crush, we’d just speed toward the next Whataburger, which was never more than an eight-minute drive away.
This ceremony strikes at another glory of regional fast food: how an experience can feel both specific and universal at the same time. As a Texas kid, I felt the way about Whataburger as a kid in the Midwest might have felt about Steak ‘n Shake as a kid in North Carolina might have felt about Cook Out as a kid in California might have felt about In-N-Out as a kid in Wisconsin might have felt about Culver’s, and so on.
“Texas, we don’t want you to be upset,” Whataburger wrote in an open letter on Twitter. “We will always be Texan and represent you in a way that makes you proud.” It’s a nice sentiment from a chain with enormous, hard-earned credibility, but with Whataburger so deeply enmeshed in the iconography of Texas – its A-frame buildings and bright orange signage are legend — something does sting about seeing it go from a family-owned operation to a column in an investment-firm ledger in a faraway place. For many in the Lone Star State, there’s still an inescapable sense that Texas has just been messed with.