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Trouble Between the Buns at Whataburger

Photo by Rick, Flickr

There’s nothing simple about selling simple burgers for a living. The decades-long relationship between Whataburger’s parent company and the Andrews family’s successful Whataburger franchises soured recently, when the Andrews’ company filed a lawsuit, claiming Whataburger violated an agreement. In Texas Monthly, Loren Steffy writes about the bad blood and changing corporate culture at Texas’ second-largest homegrown restaurant chain.

When most Whataburger customers walk into the restaurant, they have no idea if the place they are eating at is a franchise or a corporate-owned branch. And as long as they can still get their Green Chile Double Whataburgers or Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits, they probably don’t care. But the rift between the Andrews family and the burger chain they helped build represents a struggle between the past and the present, and between two families who have known each other for a long time. “It’s a little like a public divorce—neither side walks away looking good,” says Michelle Hartmann, a Dallas attorney who specializes in private-company litigation. “It hurts the brand ultimately.”

This is a terrible time to risk messing with the Whataburger brand. The Texas burger landscape is more competitive than ever, thanks to an influx of regional mini-chains such as Austin’s P. Terry’s, the Metroplex’s Twisted Root Burger Co., and Houston’s Becks Prime and smaller national chains such as Smashburger, Five Guys, and Shake Shack. Whataburger is bigger than all of those, and that may be the point. It isn’t a small business anymore, and to keep ahead of the competition, it may have to start acting its size. Its competition is McDonald’s and Wendy’s, not a boutique operation with three locations that offers grass-fed-bison burgers topped with arugula on a gluten-free bun.

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