Last week, First and Second Ladies Melania Trump and Karen Pence visited southern Texas to survey the ongoing recovery efforts following Hurricane Harvey. That was several disasters and dozens of scandals ago, but lest we forget, it was an awful, awful thing: The storm struck Texas in late August, killed 90 people, and caused a staggering $180 billion in damages, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
The nightmare continues. Recovery efforts are ongoing and expected to take years. Because Red State disasters are the most important disasters for this administration—it’s not like they’re visiting Puerto Rico anytime soon—Mrs. Trump and Pence visited several places that were either hit hard by the storm or are helping with the recovery. The visit ended in Corpus Christi with an unscheduled stop at beloved regional fast-food chain Whataburger, where the ladies even bought fries for the poor, probably bored-out-of-their-skulls schmoes on the press truck. Locals quickly took to the internet to share the news.
In these times of artifice, carefully planned photo-ops, and tightly scripted choreography, Trump and Pence stumbled onto a genuine slice of day-to-day Texas life. As faces of the federal government Texans ostensibly distrust, they found their way into the one institution locals believe in wholesale: Whataburger.
The battle of regional chains wages every day, as locals loudly proclaim the primacy of their burger purveyor. There’s probably no end to the argument of who makes the best burger among, say, In-N-Out, Steak ’N Shake, Shake Shack, etc., but you can make the case none of those earns the reverence of Whataburger in its home state of Texas, where locals treat it like a secular house of worship. Outsiders have a hard time grasping that, but Hurricane Harvey made obvious what Texans—particularly those of us who have lived through natural disasters there—have long known.
When disaster strikes, anything that provides a sense of normalcy can be enormously comforting. I grew up enduring floods in Houston, and when you literally have no food because your house was underwater, you have to find it elsewhere. A sandwich from a Red Cross truck will bridge the hunger gap, but comfort food takes on a whole new meaning when something warm, delicious—and most importantly, familiar—distracts you, if just momentarily, from the stench of mildew and rotting debris.
Whataburger’s system of having employees bring orders out to tables and walk the floor with a tray of napkins and condiments (including the chain’s beloved spicy ketchup) encourages more interaction than people tend to get at fast-food joints. On the spectrum of restaurants with the personal touch, Whataburger—with its line of burgers, patty melts, and Whatachick’n nuggets—offers customer care somewhere between a beloved greasy spoon and an emotionless, robotic corporate chain. As such, Texans are far more devoted to Whataburger than the many, many chains choking the state’s sprawling cities. How much? This photo of unknown provenance went viral after Harvey began its interminable march over Texas.
It began at Rockport, Texas, which took a direct hit when Harvey made landfall at 1 a.m. on August 26. Rockport is located 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, (where Mrs. Trump and Pence made their unplanned Whataburger stop). The particular restaurant they visited was open hours after Harvey made landfall, sparing Corpus Christi—Whataburger’s hometown—the brunt of the storm. The closest Whataburger to Rockport lies 28 miles south in Portland, just across the bay from Corpus. Within a few days it was back open, offering a limited menu for drive thru-customers.
Whataburger tweeted that photo as Harvey swirled atop Houston, causing catastrophic flooding. All of the area’s roughly 50 locations were closed. A photo of a submerged Whataburger in suburban Kingwood went viral as images of the devastation in Houston dominated the news.
After Harvey moved on and the rain finally stopped, Whataburger reopened drive-thrus at some Houston locations with limited menus. It also pledged $1 million to employees affected by the storm, $500,000 to Texas food banks, and $150,000 to the Red Cross.
People living in the affected areas measure recovery by the slow resumption of normal life. In some cases that means waiting for damaged Whataburger locations to reopen their doors. It was a big deal, for instance, when that Kingwood Whataburger returned after two months of renovation. Notice the phrasing of this tweet below—it isn’t just “the Whataburger in Kingwood.” It’s “our Whataburger.”
It was actual news when Whataburger reopened in places like Corpus Christi and Humble. When a Whataburger reopened northeast of Houston in Liberty, Texas, people lined up outside of the door before business hours. Houstonians don’t do this with McDonald’s.
When some out-of-town chain opens a restaurant in a new city, people invariably freak out, but soon the novelty wears off. The inverse seems to driving local loyalty to Whataburger: It is a staple of everyday life, Texan wallpaper, almost boringly normal. When disaster seems to change life forever, people desperately seek routine. My routine is a Whataburger with cheese and jalapenos.