Whataburger, the San Antonio-based fast-food chain turned Texas treasure, is undergoing a makeover. But the famed burgers and fries aren’t going away, and the trademark orange-and-white color scheme isn’t vanishing. Rather, the restaurants themselves are getting an updated look.
Whataburger recently debuted its first refreshed store in its South San Antonio. The newly remodeled location at 7007 S. Zarzamora St. is “really a merger of new and old,” James Turcotte, senior vice president of real estate at Whataburger, tells CultureMap.
“We have gone to great lengths and effort to try to maintain the linkage to our past, because we know, particularly in Texas, that people’s grandparents have eaten there, their parents have eaten there, they’re eating there,” Turcotte says of the companywide design overhaul. “We don’t take that loyalty lightly at all. We’re going to great lengths to try to make sure that they feel like the tradition of Whataburger is still there and being maintained, and we’re being good stewards of the brand.”
Turcotte says the renovated store on Zarzamora de-emphasizes Whataburger’s familiar A-frame, adds more glass around the front of the building, updates the décor, and serves up a refashioned kitchen. The interior exudes a modern yet slightly retro feel, highlighted by orange and gray seating, and warm wood finishes.
What’s been the reaction to the updated design?
“As in all things, some people seem to love it and some had some maybe less-favorable comments. But you know, that’s just the internet, I guess,” Turcotte says.
At the moment, two other San Antonio locations are undergoing makeovers, he says. Over the next eight to 10 years, all of Whataburger’s existing restaurants will get the new treatment. The chain comprises more than 700 company-owned stores and nearly 130 franchised stores in 10 states.
Turcotte says the Zarzamora location received what he calls a “super remodel.” That store was gutted and rebuilt, and some of the other locations will be as well. The rest of the existing restaurants will get less of a face-lift: either an upgraded exterior, kitchen, and dining room, or an upgraded exterior and kitchen.
Meanwhile, the first prototype for brand-new Whataburger stores is under construction in Bellmead, near Waco; it’s set to open in August or September. A rendering of the prototype shows no A-frame. Instead, an A-frame architectural element pops up behind the chain’s “W” logo above the front entrance. Also, the exterior dramatically scales back the iconic orange-and-white color palette.
Turcotte says Whataburger has been shifting away from the A-frame format in recent years, in part because real estate developers and city planners balk at it. “It’s a constant challenge to try to evolve but maintain the links to your past,” he says.
Meanwhile, the interior of brand-new stores will be similar to the décor at the Zarzamora store.
Next year, “virtually” all newly built stores will incorporate the prototype design, Turcotte says. Twenty-five new stores are on tap for 2021.
Turcotte guarantees that aside from the introduction of limited-time menu items, the restaurant makeovers won’t include menu changes.
“We know we’re a burger company, and we’re focused on burgers, fries, and drinks. And we want to make sure that that’s what our customers can always count on us for,” he says.
Turcotte says Whataburger plans to expand into the Kansas City and Tennessee markets while bulking up its presence across the South. As part of the expansion, Whataburger is franchising restaurants for the first time in almost 20 years.
As you might expect, Whataburger continues to look for growth opportunities in Texas, where it was born in 1950. In June 2019, Chicago-based investment firm BDT Capital Partners purchased a majority stake in Whataburger.
“Even though most of our stores are here in Texas, we still feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for us to continue to grow in Texas markets. Texas is still one of the most dynamic growth states in the country, and we continue to see a lot of other brands come to Texas to try to take advantage of that,” Turcotte says. “So in no way, shape, or form should anybody think that we’re abandoning Texas to run off and do other things. We very much understand that this is a core market for us and will be for a long time.”