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Whataburger marks its diamond anniversary

By Glenn Evans
Aug. 3, 2010 at 7:45 p.m.

What a flight, peering from an airplane at Longview in 1962.

S.A. "Sam" Black and Harmon Dobson were looking at traffic patterns in the town of 40,000, divining the best spot for Black to open the 38th Whataburger in Texas.

Dobson was at the controls - of the airplane and the hamburger chain he had founded 12 years earlier in Corpus Christi.

Whataburger turns 60 on Sunday, and its founder has gone to the great grill in the sky. But, the site he and Black chose from the air remains home to the restaurant half a block off West Marshall Avenue.

It was to be the second Whataburger brought to East Texas by Black, an Alice furniture store owner who smelled profits in the young fast food industry.

It still smells good at Whataburger to the man who oversees eight restaurants in the Whataburger East Texas chain, and Doug Edwards isn't talking only about the profits.

"It's really wholesome food," Edwards said. "There's nothing in there that isn't supposed to be - it's all fresh."

It's as fresh as the day Dobson flipped the first Whataburger, his son said.

"As much as times have changed since 1950, the Whataburger itself hasn't changed much since that first one Dad served in 1950," company Chairman and CEO Tom Dobson wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "He didn't want to just serve any old burger. He made sure everything was top quality, from the 100 percent fresh, never frozen, American beef patties to the vegetables to the specially made 5-inch buns."

Dobson recalled one of his father's oft-repeated slogans: "Never forget the quality and always say thank you."

That theme sits well with Phyllis Haase, whose father was in that airplane with Dobson's dad. Haase sat next to Edwards as he spoke, breaking briefly from remodeling plans at the restaurant on South Eastman Road near Interstate 20 in Longview.

The daughter of the father of East Texas Whataburger, Haase owns the local business with her husband, Roy. Her dad turned Whata-100 earlier this year.

She's also responsible for a trait most East Texas Whataburgers share and the rest of the franchise cannot claim.

"We came to Longview a year after they opened (the Tyler store)," she said. "And, because I like to decorate, we got to start doing some different things."

That meant a Western theme at Store No. 38, where diners can mount a saddle at chow time. In the Eastman Road restaurant, extreme sports make up the motif, while fifties icons such as Elvis and Marilyn hold court (a classic car chassis recently drove off to make room for more seating). A restaurant in Spring Hill celebrates local high school sports teams.

The corporate mentality was maturing during its middle-aged years. By the time headquarters devoted itself to a uniform appearance, the individuality of the East Texas restaurants was too legit to quit.

"So, because of that, they have chosen not to put a stop to our decorations in East Texas," Haase said.

The one on North Fourth Street celebrates all things NASCAR, and Whataburger opposite Lear Park sports Haase's own photos of Longview icons - treescapes, the Great Texas Balloon Race, etc. A new restaurant in White Oak sports Haase paintings.

Edwards said that makes East Texas unique in the company.

"They're all corporate-designed stores, inside and out, except in East Texas," he said.

The Longview and Tyler restaurants separated when Doyle Thomas bought the franchise area basically south of Interstate 20 including Kilgore. Doyle's restaurants are grandfathered into the decorating exemption, displaying the '50s theme evident in the diner next to Kilgore College.

The local franchises do conform to larger Whataburger traditions. Those include the orange-and-white striped exteriors, and staff that will bring food to the diner.

"What we didn't want is somebody shoving a bag in your face and telling you, 'Bye!' " Edwards said.

Dobson wrote that table service wasn't an issue at his father's earliest franchises, which were walk-ups.

"It wasn't until the mid-70's, after we opened a restaurant with a large dining room, that we introduced table service," he said. "We wanted to serve customers as if they were a guest in our home."

Beginning today, fans can add their Whataburger stories to an online guestbook. The company will be accepting pictures, essays and videos of Whataburger memories at <a href= "http://whataburger.com">whataburger.com</a>.

"Without exaggeration 20 to 40 times every year, somebody is telling me that they came back from the war, they got out of the service, they have been to New York or someplace they've been, and they didn't have a Whataburger, and that is the first thing they want when they get back," Haase said. "And that's tremendous."



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