Restaurant Chains of the College Football Nation


So Your Humble Author went the lazy route of farming out content via social media engagement during the offseason lull posited an important question to the college football nation: Which chain restaurants most reflect the regional tastes of each Power Five conference?

Based on not-at-all-established criteria, my nominations were as follows:

ACC: Bojangles

Based in Charlotte, the heart of ACC Country, Bojangles has locations in seven of the conference’s nine states; the only two sans establishments are New York and Massachusetts. That speaks to the inherent Southern roots of the conference, before the sprawl conference realignment wrought earlier this decade.

The original ACC map has a Bojangles in every member state.

Big Ten: Culver’s

Culver’s for the Big Ten is the nominee about which I feel the most uncertain. The burger chain’s corporate headquarters reside squarely in the Big Ten footprint, Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. What’s more, my only exposure to Culver’s as a lifelong Western is via commercials during WGN Chicago Cubs broadcasts. Chicago’s the epicenter of Big Ten Country, and the Cubs fully embrace the Big Ten’ness of the region.

One of my life’s many regrets is not picking up as many of these Big Ten-themed Cubs caps as possible.

Also, three Big Ten states are sans Culver’s, only two of which (New Jersey and Maryland) are recent realignment-sprawl additions.

Because of the lack of Big Ten East representation, which includes a paltry 10 locations in Ohio, Culver’s received some of the most understandable and thoughtful pushback. Other suggestions include White Castle, headquartered in the same city as reigning Big Ten champ Ohio State and with locations all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Other Big Ten states like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan also have these weird, tiny square hamburgers, but the chain’s most closely associated with the Rust Belt.

This might be the strongest indicator of cultural divides within conference regions.

Big 12: Whataburger

Using my own loose criteria, I consider Whataburger my most disputable entry — but also the most indicative of the state of a conference.

Whataburger only has locations in two of the Big 12’s five states. And while those two states account for six members, 60 percent is easily the lowest average of the five suggestions. The most common suggestion in place of Whataburger is Sonic Drive-In, which was founded in Oklahoma and has establishments in every Big 12 state.

Done deal, right? Well…as one respondent noted, Whataburger was too “Texas-centric.” That’s absolutely true, given the Lone Star State-headquarter burger chain only has restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma, but there may not be a better descriptor for the state of post-realignment era Big 12 than Texas-centric.

Pac-12: In-N-Out

In-N-Out first gained national fame with an important bit of expository dialogue in the quintessentially Los Angeles movie, The Big Lebowski.

“Near the In-N-Out” are terrible landmark-based directions in 2018; last season during my drives to and from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to work USC games, I counted no fewer than 10 In-N-Out locations. Despite giving up meat, the temptation of Animal Fries lingered.

In-N-Out’s Southern California roots perhaps give off the impression it’s only a Golden State thing — and having grown up in the regional footprint of Pac-12 Country beyond Southern California, I can confirm that there’s a definite angst toward what’s viewed as an L.A. bias. However, In-N-Out represents in all but two Pac-12 states, accounting for nine of the conference’s members.

What’s more, visitors to the Vegas Strip can get a No. 1 Animal Style a stone’s throw away from T-Mobile Arena — home to the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament — and not far from the future home of the Oakland Raiders, which I suspect will host the Pac-12 football championship sooner than not.

While Oregon only recently welcomed its first establishments, the restaurant played a role in the state’s football landscape. Mike Riley famously bought his Oregon State teams In-N-Out whenever the Beavers scored a win in the chain’s footprint.

And though Colorado is bereft of the burger franchise, Mike MacIntyre likewise lavished the Buffs with In-N-Out following their 2016 win at Stanford.

Even for those Pac-12 members lacking a nearby In-N-Out, it’s easy enough for any to get some with a location a block from LAX. That’s the same location that opens the second episode of David Letterman’s new Netflix series — a series so revolutionary in its journalistic approach (seriously!), I suggested ESPN mimic it in my grand vision for reshaping the Worldwide Leader’s daytime schedule.

SEC: Waffle House

After the party it’s the Waffle House
If you ever been here you know what I’m talkin’ about

So goes the hook on the 2002 smash-hit “Welcome to Atlanta.” With Atlanta serving as the longtime home for the SEC Championship Game, the city’s the spiritual heart of the conference. But I don’t base my recommendation entirely on this lone, tenuous example.

After all, Chick-Fil-A is headquartered in Atlanta, and the chicken chain hosts a number of high-profile college football games with prominent SEC ties. Its competitor, Zaxby’s, might lack the marquee sponsorship, but its shares its corporate headquarters with the location of an SEC charter member (Georgia). The restaurant’s even the lead-in to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch feature on the SEC’s impact to Missouri athletics.

However, Waffle House is more ubiquitous within the SEC map than Zaxby’s, while maintaining the regional identity more so than Chick-Fil-A. One of my loose criteria in this exercise was avoiding chains that are too national. There are more Chick-Fil-A locations near my home in coastal Southern California (including one literally in walking distance) than there are Taco Bells, and the latter is headquartered in nearby Irvine.

Waffle House’s footprint extends beyond the SEC, and is even centrally located in North Carolina. Then again, so is SEC Network. And while you can find a Waffle House location in, say, Arizona, the chain is wholly Southern.