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The Fast Food Numbering System That Repeatedly Inspires Theft

Swiping Whataburger’s table tents is almost a rite of passage.

Order up, number 30.
Order up, number 30. Minh Hoang / CC BY-ND 2.0

When Harmon Dobson founded the first Whataburger in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950, he wanted to make burgers so good that people exclaimed “What a burger!” Now, the fast food establishment promises food “just like you like it,” and the breakfast menu boasts its own set of wonders, including the honey butter chicken biscuit.

Yet sixty-plus years later, the restaurant has become a cultural and culinary institution in Texas and surrounding states thanks in part to a curious ritual that has little to do with burgers: It’s become practically routine to steal a Whataburger table tent.

A table tent is the plastic number that customers are given once they’ve placed an order inside (the restaurant doesn’t dole them out at drive-thrus), and the creative uses for stolen ones are endless. Soon-to-be-graduates take photos with table tents whose numbers form their commencement years, and athletes hunt for their jersey numbers.

Avid table tent thieves (and people who buy the tents on Ebay) proudly display them on the dashboards of their cars—which, as Twitter will tell you, is handy during rare cases of inclement weather to scrape ice off windows. The Houston Police Department has even unofficially used them as makeshift crime scene evidence markers in the past, though they no longer do.

A coke with a side of number 15, please.
A coke with a side of number 15, please. Denise Maddox / CC BY-ND 2.0

It isn’t just a small handful of people pocketing the little orange and white tents, either. The general public’s affinity for taking them is part of why Whataburger has to replace 1.2 million tents yearly at its 815 restaurants, according to a Wall Street Journal report. It costs the restaurant about 25 cents to make one table tent, which means the company shells out about $300,000 a year to feed customers’ hunger for them.

Despite the cost and police departments’ attempts to dissuade thefts by threatening citations, Whataburger appears to enjoy the publicity. The chain now sells commemorative graduation numbers online, and Rich Scheffler, Whataburger’s vice president of Marketing and Innovation, told the Journal that the table tents’ appearance on dashboards and shelves is “advertising that Whataburger would love to pay for.” According to Scheffler, the stealing trend began around 2004, when the chain redesigned the table tents to resemble the exterior of the restaurants.

The beacon of good food and table tents, pictured in Houston, Texas.
The beacon of good food and table tents, pictured in Houston, Texas. Joe Wolf / CC BY-ND 2.0


Aesthetics aside, what exactly incentivizes countless fans to leave with the numbers? For some, it’s the thrill of taking them. Others view it as a regional ritual, which has been immortalized on groom’s cakes, in tattoos, and through Halloween costumes. Whatever the impetus, there’s something undeniably appealing about the little numbers accompanying big burgers.

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