Walk into any of the 300 (and counting) In-N-Out Burger locations dotted throughout the Southwestern United States and you’ll be well on your way to what some describe as a cathartic religious experience.
Whether you enjoy a simple cheeseburger or prefer to revel in the 4×4, served “Animal Style,” there’s no denying that In-N-Out makes a ridiculously good hamburger—and serves it up with an authentic and good old-fashioned American experience.
But how is it that a company that ignores nearly every rule in the book has come out so far ahead in the quick service industry? In a business landscape where fast food chains have to continuously come up with new food innovations and knock-em-dead advertising campaigns, how did a company that took 60 years to put lemon-lime soda on the menu rise to become the preeminent fast food experience?
In-N-Out consistently churns out legendary burgers, ice-cold milkshakes, and crispy hot french fries better than anybody else, and it all comes down to one simple motto that’s been at the heart of the company since day one; a motto that can be applied to just about anything.
The story of In-N-Out begins, not surprisingly, in a restaurant. Company founder Harry Snyder, fresh out of WWII service and with a penchant for business, had found work in the kitchen of a catering company while making plans for his next move. It was there that he met his future wife Esther, who was managing the Seattle, Washington dining establishment.
Wanting to return to his hometown of Baldwin Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, Harry convinced Esther to marry him, and in 1948 they opened up their first restaurant together across the street from Harry’s childhood home.
It was the very first In-N-Out Burger, and it was drastically different from other quick service dining options sprouting up at the time. While other establishments, including McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr., were determined to cut costs using frozen beef patties and pre-cut french fries, the Snyders, who worked the hamburger stand together from morning to night, were adamant about only using high-quality fresh products. For each and every order, the burger patties were formed from freshly butchered beef; fries were made only from freshly cut potatoes; and the milkshakes were made from real ice cream.
As if that weren’t enticing enough for hungry Californians, the Snyders introduced yet another revolutionary concept to the quick service industry: the drive thru restaurant, featuring a two-way intercom and a pick-up window. Car culture was growing at an unprecedented rate, and the timing couldn’t have been better. The allure of driving along highways studded with palm trees and eating in a fancy automobile was irresistible.
While their competitors were busy cooking up the latest food trends, the Snyders were effectively becoming the most innovative players in the fast food industry—by sticking to the classics and doing them better than anybody else.
The Snyders made sure that their burgers were the best, but as savvy business owners, they had other tricks up their sleeve that would later help attract a rabid cult following.
Secret Menus, Bible Verses, and Drag Racing
The In-N-Out chain is widely known for its simple menu: it offers three different kinds of burgers (the hamburger, the cheeseburger, and the ‘Double-Double’), french fries, fountain drinks, and milkshakes in three flavors (chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla). But over time, for those who chose to embark on a culinary adventure, there evolved an unadvertised ‘Secret Menu’.
It has been common practice for fast food chains to introduce food innovations listed on massive vertigo-inducing menus. By contrast, In-N-Out has kept its Secret Menu items shrouded in a veil of mystique, limiting itself to a word-of-mouth promotion, only for those ‘in the know’.
Among the items on the elusive menu are ‘Animal Style’ burgers and fries, which are cooked with mustard and topped with cheese and grilled onions. There are Neapolitan milkshakes, and Protein Style burgers, wrapped in lettuce with no bun. The behemoth 4×4 burger is constructed with four meat patties and four cheese slices, and is the ultimate in burger indulgence.
For many, an old-fashioned, mouth-watering hamburger is as good a reason as any to flock to In-N-Out, but exceptional customer service has also been deeply rooted in the company’s DNA since day one.
In-N-Out has one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry, and pays hourly wages that are well above the federal minimum wage. For employees who stick with the company for the long haul and work their way up to store manager, a handsome six-figure salary awaits. As a result, In-N-Out has some of the most satisfied employees in the quick service industry. Unsurprisingly, this level of satisfaction spills onto customers, consistently delivering positive experiences.
But as well as keeping their employees happy, In-N-Out has the company culture and business processes firmly grounded in the same values that were instilled by Harry and Esther from the very beginning. The company has remained in the Snyder family for its entire history, through all of its ups and downs. There are no franchises, and no pressure to expand. The company has successfully resisted outside influences — from investors, or those looking to blur the company vision through a capitalistic lens. As a result, the very same In-N-Out experience as envisioned by Harry and Esther has been authentically preserved across hundreds of locations since day one. In fact, the family has even preserved an exact replica of the very first In-N-Out in Baldwin Park, California as a reminder of where it all started.
And the quirks.
The Snyder family never shied away from adding rather peculiar details to the In-N-Out experience—from biblical scriptures printed discreetly on hamburger wrappers and cups, to the pair of crossed palm trees planted in front of every location. But perhaps most recognizable of all is the family’s deep love for car culture.
Harry invested in the Irwindale Raceway in 1965, so that his sons Rich and Guy could serve burgers at the venue’s concessions stand. His fondness for drag racing soon spilled over into the few advertisements the company created, and is evident in countless T-shirt designs and nearly every piece of in-store artwork. But for a company that counts the drive-thru among its innovations, could there have been any other motif to fit the In-N-Out brand so perfectly?
The Freshest Burgers, the Coolest Shakes, and the Hottest Fries
How to encapsulate everything that makes the In-N-Out experience legendary? It’s too big a challenge to describe in mere words. Keen tastebuds, and the California sun setting behind a row of palms would be a great start. But what we do know for sure is that In-N-Out has done something unlike anything that was done before it, and will likely continue to do so, long into the future.
But what is this “something” that In-N-Out has done so well? What is it that launched a humble burger stand manned by a husband and wife into a multibillion-dollar empire?
Ultimately, what is it that keeps people coming back to this “cathartic religious experience”?
As it turns out, it’s something that their competitors can’t do; it’s something that money can’t buy. But it most certainly is something that we can all learn from.
“Keep it real simple,” was Henry’s belief. “Do one thing, and do it the best you can.”