George Gongora/Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Karl and Carol Hoepfner with Esmer Cavazos, Whataburger Corpus Christi director of operations, cut a cake at the Whataburger on the Bay.
A Rockport couple share a passion that drove them to 225 Whataburger locations and will lead them to 497 more.
It all started in San Angelo in 1963. That's when Karl and Carol Hoepfner took their first bite. They were hooked on Whataburger for life.
This year, they earned the title of Whataburger's biggest fans in an essay contest.
And with title in hand they have been proving it with a 10-state journey to visit all 722 Whataburger locations.
They made their 225th stop Wednesday at the Whataburger by the Bay (see more photos at Caller.com).
Whataguy, the restaurant mascot, hugged both of them. Management handed the couple an orange and white cake, which read, "Welcome Karl and Carol." Karl shook the hands of every employee and handed the staff a sheet of paper to write a message for his scrapbook.
When they returned the decorated paper, he added it, as has become his tradition, to the book along with his receipt, showing what they ate and a folded table number -- 13, the unit number of their home.
To top it off, the couple threw the first pitch at the Hooks game at Whataburger Field.
Throughout their military careers, they dined around the world. But their favorite little place is Whataburger store No. 201 in Rockport, where they have eaten at least 7,000 times.
"We've been all over the world and never tasted a better burger," said Karl, 75.
The first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi.
In 2010, Whataburger celebrated its 60th anniversary and on that day, Aug. 3, the Hoepfners were at No. 201 in Rockport.
"We were first in line to get a free Whataburger," he said. "The assistant manager told me about the contest, and I wrote 700 words why we were the biggest fans."
The contest awarded the Hoepfners $10,000 in prizes including Whataburger for life. They immediately returned $7,000, asking instead for 1,000 $7 gift cards, which they have given to needy individuals, local police officers and firefighters and the charity organization Rockport-Fulton Good Samaritans.
Dennis Carnes, board member for the Good Samaritans, said the organization, which helps feed the needy, is indebted to the couple.
"It makes our clients feel thrilled," he said.
The couple's journey to every Whataburger, began on a somber note. Carol, 73, was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in her eyes, which eventually sent her to Houston for 23 days of radiation earlier this year.
All of the appointments were late in the day, and Karl wanted to do something other than spend the rest of the time in their apartment.
"We won this contest and thought we might as well visit a few Whataburgers," he said.
A few turned into 1,500 miles and 90 locations around the Houston area. Then it snowballed into the 10-state journey, which the Hoepfners treat like vacations.
The couple plan to make the last of their just less than 500 remaining stops a special one.
During their trip through the Rio Grande Valley, they missed one Whataburger location in Palmview not far from Mission. Karl felt so embarrassed by his mistake that he wrote a letter to the store apologizing.
What they don't know, yet, is that Karl plans to make that restaurant their 722 stop.
There are 36,864 ways to make a Whataburger and not even Karl and Carol have tried them all. They have their favorites.
Karl likes a plain Whataburger with grilled onions and jalapeños and "toast my buns."
Carol prefers a Justaburger with grilled onions. She likes her buns toasted as well.
"It's a balanced meal," he said. "You got your salad, bread and meat"
"A Whataburger is a very good burger if it takes six napkins; seven is just outstanding," he said.