Why Are People Obsessed With In-N-Out Burger?
Julia Child swore by it. Anthony Bourdain named it his favorite Los Angeles restaurant. And as fellow In-N-Out super fans know, nothing's simultaneously sadder and sublime than finishing a juicy, marvelously messy Double-Double burger, and licking the warm, gooey cheese- and grilled-onion remnants out of the paper wrapper like a ravenous dog.
More than just a burger joint, In-N-Out is a cultural phenomenon, which over its 70-year existence has won a loyal cult following that lesser chains couldn't imagine in their wildest dollar-menu dreams. When Forbes estimates the family-owned chain's revenue will likely top $1 billion this year, the other fast-food guys wonder how they do it with only 333 restaurants in six Western states.
The answer is as simple as assembling fresh, high-quality ingredients to build a superior burger — one that's Instagrammed by movie stars; praised by celeb chefs Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller; and according to Paris Hilton, worth risking the DUI she got in 2006 on her way to the drive-through.
Learn how In-N-Out went from local mom-n-pop outfit to the stuff of urban legend, and continues to thrive as it marches to its own nostalgic beat.
Birth of a Burger Empire
The first In-N-Out patties hit the sizzling flat-top grill in 1948 at Harry and Esther Snyder's tiny burger shack in the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park, about 15 miles east of downtown. Soon, Plymouth coupes and Buick convertibles were rumbling into California's first-ever drive-through restaurant, where a cheeseburger cost 30 cents, fries set you back 15 cents and soda pop was a dime.
Flush with an overnight sensation, the Snyders expanded to a handful of nearby locations. The first In-N-Out stand, demolished in 1954 for construction of the I-10 freeway, has been replaced by a replica restaurant near the original site. A block away, burger-flipping and fry-dunking classes adjourn at the company's employee training center, In-N-Out University.
A Family Affair
In-N-Out's burger queen is the Snyders' only grandchild, Lynsi Snyder, who at age 36 ranks as one of America's youngest female billionaires, with a Forbes-estimated net worth of $3 billion.
After founder Harry Snyder died in 1976, if you guessed Lynsi was served the In-N-Out fortune on a silver combo-meal platter, think again. Her uncle, father and grandmother all took turns heading the company while she learned the ins and outs of the In-N-Out biz, even working the cash register at an outlet in Redding, California.
In 2010, the previous heirs deceased, Lynsi ascended to the burger throne and today reigns as the Irvine, California-headquartered company's sole owner and president.
Recipe for Success
It's no secret Big Mac meat was flash-frozen weeks before it met your maw. On the flip side, In-N-Out boasts that its top-notch, ground-chuck patties — produced at their own facilities in California and Texas — are always fresh and kept refrigerated, never frozen. The fries are cut from fresh potatoes on-site, the lettuce is hand-leafed, and the shakes are spun from real ice cream.
The freshness factor inspired the chain's advertising motto: "Quality You Can Taste." And it's not just a gimmick. Not only are microwaves and heat lamps verboten, the company brags no In-N-Out lies more than a one-day delivery truck's drive from one of their own food-distribution warehouses.
Saying No to the IPO
If Double-Doubles are so mind blowing, investors often wonder why the chain doesn't rule burger-obsessed America from coast to coast? They want in on the action. But the Snyder family has famously shunned franchising, preferring to keep tight, in-house reigns on quality control.
In a rare interview, usually media-shy Lynsi Snyder recently told Forbes she has no intention of ever taking In-N-Out public, adding “Unless God sends a lightning bolt down and changes my heart miraculously, I would not ever sell.”
Sorry, Wall Street.
The In-N-Out Experience
Here's the drill. Stomach growling, you pass the Burger King drive-through and pity the two cars waiting in line for Whoppers. Up ahead lies your destination, an utter madhouse with a drive-through line spilling into the street, and a frenzied parking-lot scene reminiscent of a demolition derby.
Inside, neat rows of diner booths and tables stand amid a clean, bright red, white and yellow color scheme punctuated with a palm tree motif. The counter jockey manning the register wears a crisp white shirt and one of those paper fry-cook hats straight out of "American Graffiti." He asks, "May I take your order?"
The Not-So-Secret Secret Menu
While McDonald's has more than 100 items on its menu, In-N-Out keeps it short and sweet with less than 15 choices. The most popular is a Double-Double burger (two patties, two slices of American cheese and all the fixins').
You can order a straight-up burger with no customization, but much of the chain's cult following swears by the so-called "Not-So-Secret Menu." These are special preparation requests that don't appear on in-store menu boards, but are so widely known, they're even listed on the company's website.
Tops is ordering your burger "Animal Style," which specifies a mustard-fried patty, and in addition to the usual lettuce and tomato, adds pickles, grilled onions and extra Thousand Island-type spread. For monster appetites, there are 3X3s and 4X4s — triple- and quadruple-patty burgers, respectively.
Watching your waistline? Go for a "Protein Style" burger (wrapped in lettuce rather than served on a bun), or eschew meat all together with a "Grilled Cheese."
The Secret Menu
Things get serious on the "Secret Menu," which is not officially recognized by the chain, yet all cooks are taught how to prepare. Ordering "Animal Style Fries" bags you an order of hand-cut fries smothered in melted cheese, burger spread and grilled onions. For Atkins Dieters (do they still exist?), "The Flying Dutchman" simply consists of two beef patties and two slices of cheese — sans bun or other toppings.
Why order a plain vanilla or chocolate milkshake when you can mix both flavors in a creamy "Black and White Shake," or even add strawberry for a "Neapolitan Shake"? The secret list dives so deep, rabid In-N-Out fans devote blogs to their experiences with what specialties the cooks will and will not prepare. One option the chain no longer offers is a limitless number of patties on one burger.
The Legend of the 100X100 Burger
On Halloween night 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada, three friends (including Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh) walked into an In-N-Out and ordered a Double-Double burger plus 98 extra patties, equaling the world's first 100X100 burger.
A blog post detailing the consumption of this terrifying beef and "sweaty-oily cheese" monstrosity went viral (before "viral" was even a thing), and copycats were soon ordering 20X20s, 50X50s and so on. As a result, in 2005 In-N-Out limited the number of patties to four per burger.
"I'd like a Revelation 3:20 with grilled onions, please."
While it comes as a surprise to first-timers and some casual customers, In-N-Out aficionados know the devoutly Christian Snyder family has been printing Bible citations on the chain's burger wrappers, fry containers and drink cups since the 1980s.
You'll need to look close. Rather than "Nahum 1:7" emblazoned on your Double-Double wrapper in 24-point font, it stealthily appears in tiny print on the bottom corner.
Employees Get a Fair Shake
Loyalty to In-N-Out extends beyond its legion of fans to the employees. Dining room workers and drive-through attendants are almost unfailingly enthusiastic, and with good reason. New hires start at $13 per hour, which is $2 to $6 above minimum wage in states the chain operates.
Employee turnover rate is low compared to other fast-food chains. And if you stick around the company long enough to climb the ladder, Forbes estimates store managers have seen an average 17 years of duty and earn annual salaries in the neighborhood of $160,000.
In raw numbers, how does In-N-Out stack up against other fast-food chains? The average McDonald's outlet grosses about $2.6 million per year, according to QSR Magazine. Meanwhile, Forbes estimates an In-N-Out store generates around $4.5 million per year. Though In-N-Out doesn't divulge financials, the magazine also projects the restaurants operate at a healthy 20-percent profit margin.
To keep costs down, the company buys wholesale beef in huge bulk and grinds it in-house. And unlike other burger chains that must also keep everything from chicken nuggets to breakfast burritos on hand, In-N-Out cuts the food supply bill by strictly selling burgers and fries.
Fixin' For the Future
Lending to In-N-Out's mystique is the fact you can't get a Double-Double in Times Square or Miami Beach. Currently, the chain is limited to 333 restaurants in six Western states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Utah). The slow growth is intentional. As Lynsi Snyder recently told Forbes, "I like that we’re unique. That we’re not on every corner. You put us in every state and it takes away some of its luster."
It's a savvy business strategy, yet money is as irresistible as an order of "Animal-Style" fries. In 2017, In-N-Out announced plans to build a distribution center in Colorado Springs, Colorado ahead of expansion into that state, which is expected to begin in 2021. Start studying that Secret Menu, Coloradans.