Whataburger restaurants will continue to allow concealed weapons but will prohibit open carry

Whataburger restaurants across Texas, including this one on Frank Street in Lufkin, will continue to allow patrons to carry concealed weapons but will prohibit open carry when a new law takes effect next year.

A Texas culinary institution weighed in recently on the debate of open carrying of firearms.

Preston Atkinson, president and CEO of San Antonio-based Whataburger, said in a statement that patrons who are licensed to carry concealed weapons will still be allowed to do so, but open carrying of firearms is prohibited. 

The statement was published on the company’s website on July 2.

“Whataburger supports customers’ Second Amendment rights and we respect your group’s position, but we haven’t allowed the open carry of firearms in our restaurants for a long time (although we have not prohibited licensed conceal carry),” said Atkinson, who also stated he holds a concealed carry license. “It’s a business decision we made a long time ago and have stood by, and I think it’s important you know why.”

The Texas Legislature passed a law earlier this year allowing open carry of handguns for license holders using a hip or shoulder holster. However, the law also affords private property owners the right to ban the practice. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

“We’ve had many customers and employees tell us they’re uncomfortable being around someone with a visible firearm who is not a member of law enforcement, and as a business, we have to listen and value that feedback in the same way we value yours,” Atkinson said. “We have a responsibility to make sure everyone who walks into our restaurants feels comfortable.”

Maci Herrington Dover, director of marketing for local Whataburger franchisee, G.V.C.S., Inc., said they will abide by the corporate office’s stance on the issue.

“We are a franchisee; therefore, we follow corporate’s stance, but it needs to be clarified that this is not an issue with concealed carriers,” Dover said. “It is strictly open carry. We’re a family restaurant. We don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable by what other patrons are doing.”

Eric Chiappinelli the Frank McDonald endowed professor of law at the Texas Tech University School of Law, said in a statement that Whataburger’s decision to continue its ban on open carry is based upon its view of what its customers prefer, not based on management’s view of whether open carry in general is good or bad.

“Every enterprise makes business decisions because it believes its customers will approve,” Chiappinelli said. “Lots of companies, big and small, public and private, have made the same decision Whataburger has made, and for the same reason. It’s an assessment by each company of what will increase sales from its core customers.”

Whataburger was founded in Corpus Christi in 1950 and has 780 locations in 10 states.

Other businesses, however, such as Target, have asked customers to keep their guns at home.

“Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so,” said then-interim CEO John Mulligan in a statement published last year on the store’s website. “But starting today, we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target — even in communities where it is permitted by law. We’ve listened carefully to the nuances of this debate and respect the protected rights of everyone involved. In return, we are asking for help in fulfilling our goal to create an atmosphere that is safe and inviting for our guests and team members.”

According to media reports, Starbucks, Jack in the Box, Chipotle, Sonic and Chili’s have also enacted bans on their properties.

When the law takes effect next year, businesses that do not want customers to open carry must post a sign that is displayed in a “conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public” at the entrance and that contains specific wording about their policy.

Steve Knight’s email address is sknight@lufkindailynews.com.