JACKSONVILLE, FL-Earlier this year the first Whataburger in central Florida opened in Jacksonville and went on to break the restaurant’s record for first day sales, first week sales and first month sales. It is likely that the store, which is located at JT Butler Boulevard and Phillips Highway, will gain the title of record sales for the year.

The success of the Jacksonville store is not surprising to those who know the brand. “I think people think that Whataburger is most akin to In-and-Out Burger in that it has a cult-like following like In-and-Out does,” says Tom Leiser of Dallas-based Bandera Ventures. “They’ve already got a fair amount of brand awareness in Texas and are continuing it on toward the east.”

Bandera Ventures is developing 18 Whataburgers in Florida for franchisee Tony Boseli, a former football player with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Oilers. Boseli hopes to establish as many as 120 Whataburgers in Florida in the next several years.

“All of the people we’ve signed (for franchisees in Florida) have been from Texas,” says James Turcotte, vice president of franchise development for the Corpus Christi, TX-based Whataburger Inc. “They wanted the opportunity to be able to take the brand to that part of the world…They are willing to travel with the brand.”

Jacksonville is just one of the markets across the Southeast in which Whataburger hopes to expand. With a well-known brand in Texas and surrounding states, it’s now reaching east with a franchisee program that was re-launched in late 2001. “We had a good story to tell,” Turcotte says “and felt like our brand was ready to grow again.”

Whataburger’s expansion strategy has a clear path–literally. The company is working to build stores in key markets along Interstates 10 and, which run from Texas across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Mississippi before jogging into Georgia and Florida.Turcotte says the goal is to find the right balance of expansion to build the brand and saturate the market. “We have the good fortune of being a privately held company so we approach development by making prudent decisions and taking our time,” he says.

Although Whataburger had been in Florida since the 1960s, it only had a couple stores in the Panhandle. “We knew that Florida would be a natural expansion because we already had distribution established,” Turcotte explains.

But the expansion has not been a piece of cake for a 54-year-old company with 630 stores in 10 states. “In Florida, most of the retail developers didn’t know Whataburger,” Leiser says. “And they’re very sensitive and picky about who they sell pad sites to. It takes a lot of effort to educate these developers about Whataburger and convince them to sell their pad sites.”

Whataburger has managed to contract with Florida franchisees to build restaurants in Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa/St. Petersburg. “We’re very excited about our growth in Florida and are looking forward to opening additional stores in that part of the world,” Turcotte says. “We feel that our brand travels well to Florida because of the similar demographics to markets in Texas.”

The company also has expanded into southern Georgia and Mississippi and is interviewing franchisees for eateries in Birmingham, AL. By early next year, Whataburger will have three restaurant open in Jackson, MS, its first market in the Crimson Tide State.

Finding one-acre sites necessary for the stores is far easier than finding the right franchisee, Turcotte says. The Whataburger brand attracts a lot of inquiries from people who like the burgers, but lack restaurant experience and capital. Nonetheless, the company is cooking up its expansion plans for 2005. “We don’t have a goal in terms of recruiting franchisees, but we do hope to build and open 20 to 25 stores,” Turcotte says. And, the company is working on some prototype units for franchisees as well as corporate use that will allow the brand to build on infill sites.

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