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October 2008

Lone Star Favorites

Texas giants that sprang from simple ideas

by Clint Shields

Good food. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures and a topic Texans know plenty about. Texans cook up some of the best food around and, occasionally, come up with recipes that spread across the state and beyond.

Such was the case with two Texas food industry giants: Blue Bell Creameries and Whataburger restaurants. Both companies started with simple operations and trace their modern success back to humble, small-town beginnings.

Deep Roots

When Brenham’s Blue Bell Creameries – originally the Brenham Creamery Company – opened in 1907, butter was the name of the game.

“We didn’t start making ice cream until 1911, and even then it was a secondary product,” says Bill Weiss, Blue Bell’s public relations manager. “We could make two gallons a day.”

More than a century later, 2,800 employees make it the third-best selling brand of ice cream in the nation, with an estimated $400 million in annual sales.

But hard times early on nearly signaled the creamery’s closure before refrigeration, trucks and E.F. Kruse’s guidance – followed later by his sons – brought resurgence to the company and, ultimately, a focus on ice cream. In 1958, the creamery dropped butter from its Brenham production schedule and entered a very competitive ice cream market. In 1969, the company introduced its Homemade Vanilla flavor. Freezers in homes throughout Texas would never be the same.

“The goal was to make a product like the one you’d make at home on the front porch,” says Weiss. “We took a chance on the product and it continues to be our No. 1 seller.”

Blue Bell’s reputation spread quickly through Texas, and slowly through the 60s, 70s and 80s, so did its ice cream. In 1989, it began selling in Oklahoma, gradually marched through the South and is now sold in 17 states. Blue Bell’s small-town Texas roots serve it well across its markets.

“I think there’s a feeling for the most part that if it’s from the country there in Texas, it’s got to be good,” says Weiss. “We feel like if we can get them to try our ice cream, they’ll like it and come back for more.”

A Bigger, Better Burger

Better With Age

Whataburger has been selling made-to-order burgers for more than 50 years.

YearSystem-wide sales
2007 $1.1 billion
2006 $ .9 billion
2005 $ .8 billion
2004 $ .7 billion
2003 $ .7 billion

Source: Whataburger

“What a burger!” It’s what Harmon Dobson hoped customers would say after biting into his made-to-order hamburgers. Enough did, and Whataburger spread from its humble 1950 beginnings in Corpus Christi to a $1 billion operation that employees 21,000 people at more than 700 restaurants.

“Whataburger was almost instantly successful in Corpus Christi because we were offering something that no other burger restaurants were: a five-inch, made-to-order burger,” says Preston Atkinson, president and chief operating officer at Whataburger.

The line for Dobson’s burgers soon stretched around the block. Within three years, five restaurants were open. Like Blue Bell, Whataburger’s expansion has come at a slow and sensible pace.

“Our top priority as a company has always been consistently delivering the made-to-order food we’re known for,” says Atkinson. “We grow smart, not necessarily fast, so that all of our suppliers continue to deliver fresh products to our restaurants.”

Whataburger’s attention to detail and loyalty to tried-and-true recipes and suppliers make it a hit wherever a restaurant opens.

“Whataburger has an extremely loyal customer base,” says Atkinson. “We hear from customers frequently about how they plan their vacations around the nearest Whataburger.” FN

For more information on the history of Blue Bell, visit them online at

For more information on the history of Whataburger, visit them online