by Dan Oshinsky on July 2, 2009
It is hot here; that should not come as a surprise to you. But what is a surprise is how little time people spend outside in San Antonio. It’s so hot that humans here do not venture into the open air, save for the fleeting moments spent between air conditioned house and air conditioned car. If you are fortunate enough, your car sits in a temperature-controlled garage all night, and you park it in an indoor garage at work in the morning, and the only hours spent outside are the spartan steps between your driver’s side door and the entrance to the Central Market, where valets will park your car while you buy foccacia bread.
Locals spend so little time outside that, if not for regular news reports, you’d never know how obese this city’s population really is.
When I first arrived in San Antonio, I asked if there were any neighborhoods where residents could walk around, grab a bite to eat and enjoy a local park. I was promptly told that if those were my priorities, I should consider moving to Europe instead.
In the days since, I’ve learned that there’s one thing – other than air conditioning – that San Antonians are especially passionate about: finding ways to never leave their cars.
I have never seen a town more obsessed with drive-thru restaurants, be it for coffee, donuts, hamburgers or tacos 3.). In this town, there are thousands of paths to rejecting Jenny Craig as your personal savior, and almost all of them start with the phrase, “Hi, I’d like a number two combo meal, please.”
But – and this is strange for a town as obese as San Antonio – mainstream fast food isn’t the source of the problem here. There are not that many McDonald’ses or Burger Kings or Taco Bells in this town.
The problem here is Whataburger.
Think of Whataburger as the In-N-Out of Texas. It has a signature look: each restaurant has this sloping, blue and orange striped roof. It has a signature feel: though each burger is ordered at the counter, employees hand deliver the food to your table. It even has a signature market: Whataburger is only available in a handful of states across the south.
But unlike In-N-Out, no one’s confusing the Whataburger crowd for gourmands.
The chain serves big burgers, the patty drooping out over the buns, and salty, skinny fries. And the drinks – my God, the small drink at Whataburger is as large as a 7-11 Big Gulp. It’s a serving size that the FDA clearly should’ve gotten wind of by now; apparently, those winds were lost somewhere over Beaumont.
Let me put it this way: if Morgan Spurlock had tried to eat thirty days of Whataburger, he’d have died within a week.
It seems obvious, then, that a burger this fattening in a city this fat can only be enjoyed one way: within the comforts of one’s air conditioned car.
Which is where the double lane Whataburger drive-thru comes in.
There is such a drive-thru in the northwest corner of San Antonio, off Fredericksburg Road. The set up is as such: there is a central kitchen contained within one main building, and on either side, there is a drive-thru lane. In front of the restaurant, there is a window for walk-up orders, but this seems more for show. It’s taken about as seriously as the NFL preseason.
It’s worth noting: there is no inside to the restaurant. You cannot walk in. You cannot sit down. You cannot find yourself in the presence of free air conditioning. Under these circumstances, you are actually forced to stay in your vehicle. This seems to please the good people of San Antonio tremendously.
It is here that I should say that San Antonians are an unusual breed: they tend to take things at a slower pace. They walk slower. They talk slower. They’re even willing to wait a little longer for convenience.
In this case, make that extra convenience, because the sensation of being served a beefy ball of grease – with pickles on the side – isn’t enough, apparently. San Antonians will actually wait longer to enjoy the convenience of not reaching across their vehicle to grab their freshly purchased, previously-frozen slab of meat.
I know this because on the day I first visited this Whataburger – and on the subsequent days that I have returned to survey the store – one drive-thru line has always been busy, and one line has always been empty. In many cases, the one line may have upwards of six vehicles waiting for food, while the other is completely deserted.
Perhaps I should explain why.
The full line is always to the right of the store. It is a traditional drive-thru set up; you yell your order into a speaker box, you pull around to the window, and there, directly next to the driver’s side window, you exchange cash for burger. There is no effort or lunging involved.
The empty line is always to the left of the store. It is identical to the right-side line, except for one alteration: the store’s window aligns – almost tragically so – with the passenger side’s window.
Curious, I tested out the left-side line last week at Whataburger. I ordered the smallest thing on the menu – the unsurprisingly named Whataburger, with fries and a drink. I pulled around to their window. I opened my passenger side’s window. And then I waited.
A young man inside the store opened his window, and as such, the pirouette began. He placed his bottom on the window’s sill. He scooted himself toward my vehicle, like a tyke creeping toward the high dive’s edge. And then, with a single, practiced thrust, he suddenly burst headlong into my car, his entire upper body squeezed through my window and nearly onto my upholstery, his legs still dangling inside his restaurant.
“That’ll be $6.15,” he told me.
I looked at his face. To say that he was coated in sweat is an understatement; he was layered in it, looking as greasy as the burger I was about to eat.
I handed him my cash, and – just as violently as he’d entered – he thrust himself back into the store. Then, once more, he scooted to the sill and rocketed almost fully back into my car.
“Here’s your burger, man,” and he thrust out.
And there I was, stuck for a moment, my hand not wanting to shift the car into gear. I was not sure how the man had managed to thrust himself into my car with such dexterity, or why it had happened at such alarming speed.
And then I closed my windows and ensconced myself in the familiar chill of my car’s air conditioning, and in that moment, as I pulled out of the drive-thru and looked back at the other lane, some six cars waiting to be served, I found peace.
And in the moments after, as I dug into my no. 1 Whatameal combo, I found something else:
I think I liked peace better.