How Seattle & Campbell’s Soup helped shape the history of Whataburger in Houston

Howdy folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today we’re talking about Whataburger and how their acquisition of a Pacific Northwest Burger chain’s Texas operations led to some of their more iconic Houston restaurants. Before we switch gears to talking about the outsiders, let us spend a minute talking about Whataburger’s history in town. The first Whataburger opened in Houston in 1957 on OST. At the time, Whataburger did not use the iconic A-Frame. Instead, they utilized a stout rectangular building with an imposing V-shaped canopy in the front. Whataburger of this era still closely matched the drive-up stand that Harman Dobson had created only a few years prior. During this time, Whataburger would continue to expand statewide, mostly entering medium or small towns. In the early years, Houston was the biggest city they served, and it only kept growing. To reflect this, the contract with their original franchisee was either allowed to expire or was revoked around 1960, and the company would begin building new A-Frame locations in the developing suburbs. The A-Frames would be some of the first after the first prototype debuted in Odessa in 1961. By 1963, Whataburger had four locations throughout town and was looking to continue its expansion throughout the rest of Texas. During this time, another Burger Chain was just about to set its eyes on Houston. Unfortunately, though, their eyes were bigger than their proverbial stomachs.

When Herfy’s came to town, they were on an expansion tear funded by Campbells Soup Co., which was attempting to diversify its operations. It was not the only company trying to do so; For example, California-based Del Taco would similarly sell a portion of its company to W.R. Grace, a Chemical company. Having no experience in this domain, Grace would rely heavily on Del Taco for support. Campbell’s, on the other hand, felt that they had a good handle on the food service business, so they elected to place their executives in charge of Herfy’s. It’s easy to say that the Campbell’s team was a bit naive when dealing with restaurants. The company did initially follow some original strategies, like expanding down the West Coast. However, Campbell’s was looking to build a powerful chain and had an eye on national expansion. When selecting Houston as its first out-of-market expansion, it seems that Herfy’s/Campbells were relying on the absence of McDonald’s to help their prospects. This harkens back to Herfy’s hometown of Seatle, which was similarly free of McDonald’s when Herfy’s was founded. In Houston, McDonald’s was kept out of the city limits until the 1970s by the similarly named McDonald’s Drive-Inn chain. Beyond this general naivety, some more specific issues included the building design. Rather than custom design stores for car-dominant, hot, and humid Houston, Herfy’s reused store layouts from the Northwest. Issues included a lack of drive-thrus, as they were becoming more commonplace at competitor’s restaurants, and outdoor access restrooms, likely making some uncomfortable dining experiences during the dead of summer. From 1971-1975 Herfy’s would construct 11 of their planned 25 restaurants in the Houston area. By the end of 1975, looking to expand again in Houston, Whataburger would quietly purchase all 11 Herfy’s locations. The stores would briefly shut down and reopen as somewhat unusual looking for the era Whataburger stores. Of the 11, let’s take a look at a few former Herfy’s.

3712 S Shepherd – The Most Famous Former Herfy

Our first stop is 3712 S Shepherd Dr, Houston, TX 77098, which deserves an explanation for the odd block it sits on. The block was created by cutting Farnham Street across a residential neighborhood. At that point, Farnham was part of a system that connected Modern Richmond Ave to Bissonnet, making up the original “Richmond Road,” now known further West as “Old Richmond.” I could go on (and may if there’s enough demand) about the old roads of Houston. However, the important takeaway is that about two and a half blocks of housing were converted to hold a shopping center when the street was built. In response, the East side of the street would slowly sell off homes one by one to businesses. This location’s exterior has seen some updates; new flagstone cladding covers the bottom half of the brickwork. However, the mansard roof is still intact. The interior of this location has received the most drastic changes. Herfy’s used dual entrances are what we’ll see in the other two locations, and the odd street setup here meant the Northern parking lot would be removed to add a turnaround for the drive-thru. The Northern entrance was closed off, and the soda fountains were put in their place. Interestingly in this location, the bathrooms were added to the dining room, resulting in a full remodel of the dining room.

444 W Little York – The Most Intact Herf-a-Burger

Next, let’s check out 444 W Little York Rd, Houston, TX 77076, an excellent example of a former Herfy’s. This store has two awkwardly placed entrance doors along the sides of the building, likely originally from Herfy’s. You have to cross through the Drive-Thru line on either side to enter. Once inside, some notable features are the offset soda fountain and the ceiling in the dining room. The soda fountain sits in front of what was originally open counter space for Herfy’s but has been closed off at some point. The dining room is largely untouched except for new seating, lights, and wall coverings. The metal mansard roof and brick columns are all in excellent shape. Someone from the PNW who knew about Herfy’s would likely be able to ID this restaurant (with a little context, of course). The location is a bit odd, as it sits very far forward in the parking lot of a Food Town. However, it does brisk business, bringing in many people from the Highway. Due to its mostly original configuration, the bathrooms at this store are down a narrow hallway and seemingly converted from “outdoors” (lacking A/C).

2429 Gessner – Hidden in Plain Sight in Spring Branch

Our next stop is 2429 Gessner Rd, Houston, TX 77080; this former Herfy’s is noticeable for its external update. At some point, Whataburger removed the mansard roof of this Herf-a-Burger, and a couple of other locations (Sharpstown, OST), which have since closed. It’s unclear exactly why the roofs were removed, but it appears to have occurred in the 90s when the buildings received a general refresh/update. Other changes to this store include the removal of the custom ceiling and changing of the dining room furniture. However, at this location, the untreated brick is still visible on the inside. Like all other Herf-A-Burger locations, this one features an “odd” drive-thru, having the customer make a loop on one side of the parking lot, making this location easier to access. This store rebuilt its restrooms at some point, removing a bit of space from the kitchen.

3639 Westheimer – The Bonus Herfy Homage

Finally, we’re checking out 3639 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77027. This former Herf-a-Burger was likely a pretty successful location. Even without a drive-thru, this was, and still is, the only fast-food outlet in the River Oaks area. Even Joel Osteen needs a hamburger now and again. This location initially opened as a full-size Herfy’s in 1973. It was built directly adjacent to the street corner and, from day one, in that configuration, would have no room for a drive-thru and an entrance. It seems that Whataburger had issues getting permission to rebuild the location. All the way into the early 90s, the River Oaks Whataburger continued to use the old Herfy’s building until it was finally torn down. The replacement building clearly has some architectural cues taken from the old Herf-a-Burger, such as the mansard roof, the brick support columns, and overhangs. It’s not assured, but a good guess that this was likely done to help get permission for the rebuild.

All in all, it seems that even though Herfy’s wasn’t in Houston long, these buildings have had a good life. Whataburger used all 11 locations for over ten years before ditching the first location. All others would stay occupied until about 20 years ago. Whataburger has slowly been moving away from these old Herfy’s locations, opting to build newer stores up to modern standards. In the age of mobile ordering and curbside pickup, these stores are likely falling behind. That being said, for everything, Herfy’s got wrong, their location choice seems to be impeccable.

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