Originally published in 2020
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Mooresville, North Carolina, and the lunch hour rush is in full swing at What-A-Burger No. 11. Located beside the railroad tracks that divide downtown, this iconic eatery is hard to miss with its towering Jetsons-era sign. Adorned with various symbols like a star, a fully dressed cheeseburger, and a Cherry Lemon Sun Drop logo, it beckons hungry customers from far and wide.
As you approach, you’ll notice a curious mix of patrons. A group of motorcyclists, en route to Little Switzerland, patiently waits for their mouthwatering burgers. They whip out their phones, embarking on a quest to settle a burning question that out-of-state visitors often ask: “Is this the same as the Whataburger in Texas?”
But put down your phones, my friends, for I have the answer. While Texas boasts its famous Whataburger, North Carolina proudly serves up its own version of culinary delight: What-A-Burger. And just to keep things interesting, Virginia has its own distinct What-A-Burger as well.
In the realm of gastronomy, the distinction between Texas and North Carolina reaches beyond a mere 1,200 miles. It encompasses more than just debates over whether beef qualifies as true barbecue. Even the names themselves carry subtle differences. Whataburger, founded in Corpus Christi in 1950 and headquartered in San Antonio, spans over 800 locations from Arizona to Florida. With revenues exceeding $2 billion, its emblematic orange-and-white logo and A-frame architecture epitomize the 1960s style. In contrast, North Carolina’s What-A-Burger specializes in freshly-cooked burgers, boasts zigzag roofs, and evokes a strong sense of nostalgia.
The story of North Carolina’s What-A-Burger traces back to its humble beginnings in 1956, when E.L. Bost and C.W. Bost (no relation) established the first location. Initially, they claimed 15 restaurants, but truth be told, they had fewer than a dozen. Fast forward to the present day, and only six of these cherished establishments remain, primarily scattered around Concord, Kannapolis, and Mooresville. Although some locations have severed ties with the Bost family, they still proudly bear the What-A-Burger name, like the one in Greensboro, which now operates as Church Street Café.
These nostalgic drive-ins hold a special place in our hearts. They remind us of a time when driving was an experience to be savored—an era where cars possessed both style and substance. Unlike drive-through establishments that prioritize efficiency and convenience, drive-ins were built for leisurely pleasure. They thrived during the 1950s and ’60s when air-conditioning was a luxury and endless entertainment options were non-existent. People would relish in the simple joy of cruising around while pulling up to a drive-in, parking their vehicles, and placing their orders through speakers or carhopping servers. They would savor their burgers and milkshakes from trays perched on their car windows, waving to friends passing by.
Though many drive-ins have become relics of the past due to the rise of drive-throughs, a handful still hold on, often found in small towns or on city outskirts. What-A-Burgers, like their nostalgic counterparts, have also seen better days. The call boxes have faded to a powdery gunmetal gray, and the once-swiveling trays hang at an angle, no longer accommodating the windows of modern SUVs and minivans. However, if you pull up next to one of those iconic speakers, you can temporarily transport yourself back to the golden age of poodle skirts and classic cars.
At the Kannapolis What-A-Burger on North Cannon Boulevard, a spirited carhop, with a hint of gray in her ponytail, cheerfully delivers your order. She exclaims, “A Witch Doctor fix and a little snack for you,” as she hands over a bag containing crinkle-cut fries and a What-A-Cheeseburger. This delectable creation, tucked inside a paper envelope, is topped with shredded lettuce, onion, mustard, and a generous serving of pickle slices. Another pickle slice, cunningly toothpicked to the top bun, leaves a delightful puckered circle when you remove it.
The Witch Doctor, a signature drink at What-A-Burger, embodies a unique blend of flavors. A muddy-red concoction crafted from various soda fountain syrups, it surprises the taste buds with a hint of pickle juice. To finish, a medley of pickle slices and a wedge of lemon proudly adorn the beverage. Sipping this grassy, sweet, and vinegary elixir is akin to placing coleslaw on a slice of cherry pie. It’s an experience that’s impossible to replicate.
The evolution of Whataburger and What-A-Burger is shrouded in obscurity. Eb Bost, also known as Eb, initially ventured into the restaurant business in Augusta, Georgia, with two small eateries: the No. 1 Drive-In and the Varsity. Perhaps inspired by a local establishment called Lottaburger, Eb named his own creation the What-A-Burger, aptly describing its colossal size and five-inch bun.
In 1956, Eb joined forces with his friend, C.W., and opened the first What-A-Burger in Kannapolis. The duo soon expanded their reach, but faced a dilemma—the closest bakery didn’t produce the specific five-inch buns they needed. Undeterred, Eb diligently transported these buns all the way from Augusta until they found a local provider.
Meanwhile, Jack Branch, an enterprising entrepreneur, launched his own chain of Virginia-based What-A-Burger restaurants. Unbeknownst to him, another budding company named Whataburger emerged in Corpus Christi, Texas, under the guidance of Harmon Dobson. Curiously, it wasn’t until 1970 when Branch and Dobson discovered each other’s ventures. While some sources claim they entertained the idea of a licensing agreement, they ultimately decided to coexist independently. The What-A-Burger chain in North Carolina wasn’t part of these discussions. Eventually, in 2002, legal disputes over trademark ownership ensued between the Texas and Virginia companies. However, when the court ruling arrived in 2004, it was deemed that consumers were unlikely to mistake one brand for the other. Consequently, the Bost family was able to retain their cherished name.
Deciphering the menu at a North Carolina What-A-Burger can sometimes be an adventure in itself. Seeking assistance from a local is not uncommon. The What-A-Burger and What-A-Cheeseburger, both larger than their regular counterparts, come adorned with pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard. Although not explicitly stated on the outside menu, “All-the-way” orders result in a burger topped with chili, coleslaw, and diced onion. Every “What-A” creation features a four-ounce patty nestled within its five-inch bun.
Other mouthwatering options grace the menu as well, including fish sandwiches, barbecue platters, chicken wings, and hot dogs. Slight variations among different locations ensure each visit offers a unique experience.
Yet, no matter what the menu suggests, Mike Bost, E.L.’s 71-year-old son and the torchbearer of the four Charlotte-area locations, assures customers that customization is key. “We’ve maintained the same menu throughout the years,” he states. “When we first started, people ordered sandwiches with the classic ‘lettuce, tomato, mayo.’ But over time, they’ve come to expect it prepared just the way they like it.”
In this ever-changing world, the enduring appeal of drive-ins lies in their ability to transport us to a simpler era. Amidst uncertain times, it’s comforting to know that we can hop into our cars, take a short trip into the past, and have things our way.
To savor the taste of nostalgia and experience the unique offerings of What-A-Burger, visit Hook’d Up Bar and Grill, the official website for more information.
This article is a creative adaptation of the original content.