• Bill Petrie

The Ballad of Whataburger

How singular focus on being different will lead to success

I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, which means the following:

  • I will always be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, even though they crush my soul on an annual basis

  • I have heard just about every conspiracy theory as it relates to the assassination of JFK

  • I like my chili as nature intended: without beans

  • Barbecue means beef and, more specifically, brisket

  • The best fast-food burger is at Whataburger

If you didn’t grow up in Texas, there’s an excellent chance you’ve never enjoyed a burger under the iconic orange and white roof. The first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950 with the goal to “make a better burger that took two hands to hold and tasted so good that when you took a bite, you would say ‘What a burger!’” While the company has expanded recently in the Southeast, 670 of the company’s 824 stores are located in the Lone Star State.

Whataburger, while delicious, is not among the top quick-service restaurants in the United States in terms of revenue. In fact, it’s not even in the top ten. Given their loyal fanbase, this might be a bit of a surprise. Whataburger has never tried to beat McDonald’s or Wendy’s at their own game because they knew it was a fool’s mission. Instead, they have focused on serving an intentionally different product that doesn’t resemble the usual fast-food burger offerings.

This singular focus has allowed Whataburger to cultivate a loyal – almost fanatical – following that would be envied by just about any brand, and they did it by following their tagline: “we build a bigger, better burger.” They don’t want to be McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, or any number of other fast-food restaurants. Instead, they are intentionally regionally focused with the vast majority of restaurants being owned by the company and not franchised. In the spirit of the book Pink Goldfish by Stan Phelps and David Rendall, they have not only embraced their perceived weaknesses - they have capitalized on them. By being completely different in the marketplace they have earned a place in the hearts, minds, and, most importantly, wallets of their consumer base.

If you choose to compete directly with the “big guys” by providing similar services, value propositions and extolling your “creativity,” your road to success is going to be bumpy at best. Instead, look internally to understand what you do better – and differently – than anyone else in the marketplace. Once you fully comprehend that, find the right clients willing to pay for it. Just like Whataburger found, those customers are out there - and they are among the most loyal around.

You can try to compete with the big guys by offering a promotional products version of Burger Chef, White Tower, or Burger Queen, but you’ll only end up comparing yourself to the real deal and will likely fall short. On the other hand, you’ll find the road to success far quicker and less bumpy by being your own Whataburger while your competition allows themselves to be lumped in with the crowd.


Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be enjoying my lunch of a Whataburger, spicy ketchup, and a Dr. Pepper shake.

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