The Cult of In-N-Out Burger

The little burger shack opened by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948 has grown steadily ever since

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I recently finished the book In-N-Out Burger, by business writer Stacy Perman, about the wildly popular West Coast burger chain. Although I've never actually had a Double-Double, as their most iconic menu item is known, I've always been puzzled by the mystique surrounding what is, essentially, plain old fast food—just burgers, fries and shakes.

But, no, the devoted fans (among which are Michelin-starred chefs, celebrities and my brother) would argue, there's nothing plain about In-N-Out. They use quality beef, real potatoes and ice cream, and make every burger to order. You can even order off the secret menu (now posted on the Web site, under the heading "Not-So-Secret Menu"), which includes Animal-style (the mustard is cooked into the patty and the onions are grilled), Protein-style (wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun), or, what I always get, Grilled Cheese (OK, so it's really just a burger with no meat, but it's actually pretty good).

My interest in the company also has to do with it being one of the client accounts I worked on as a young advertising art director, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a boring account; the company was so set in its way of doing things that there was no room for creativity.

And who could argue with their track record? As Perman recounts, the little burger shack opened by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948, in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park, has grown steadily ever since. Investors have salivated over the family-owned business, which has steadfastly refused to franchise or go public, and eager fans cause traffic jams whenever a new location opens (which, in contrast to most fast-food chains, happens somewhat infrequently). Vanity Fair hires one of the company's catering trucks for its annual post-Oscar bash. Ex-Californians and savvy out-of-towners head to In-N-Out straight from LAX to feed their burger joneses. Famous chefs, including Daniel Boulud, Ruth Reichl and Thomas Keller (who enjoys his cheeseburger with a glass of Zinfandel), have professed their love of In-N-Out in the national press.

Yet the company's success has been counterintuitive, and opposite from how most successful chains operate. It never expands its menu, never cuts corners to save money, pays its employees better than the going fast-food wage (and treats them better than most), and does quirky things—like print Bible citations on its cups and burger wrappers—that risk offending some customers. If any of these things have hurt business, though, it's hard to see how.

Perman's book gives some insight into why the Snyders have done things as they have. She describes the original owners, Harry and Ethel, as hard workers with uncompromising values. They weren't interested in a quick buck, but merely wanted to grow a solid family business that their sons, Rich and Guy, could carry on. Although, in many ways, things didn't work out as the couple had hoped—Rich, who took over the business after Harry died in 1976 (and was behind the biblical citations), himself died in a plane accident in 1993, and Guy, who succeeded his brother, succumbed in 1999 to a drug addiction he had developed after a car-racing accident—their vision for the business itself persisted. Part of this, Perman writes, had to do with Ethel's continued presence, if not active involvement, in the company. But Ethel died in 2006, leaving her 24-year-old granddaughter, Lynsi Martinez, as sole adult heir to the family business.

So far, nothing noticeable has changed at the chain. And, if fans like L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik have their way, nothing ever will.

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