Authors: Stacy Perman
A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules
“The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they nourish themselves.”
âJean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin,
The Physiology of Taste
“Keep it real simple. Do one thing and do it the best you can.”
âHarry Snyder, co-founder
of In-N-Out Burger
On the dry, desert morning of April 24, 2007, theâ¦
The old In-N-Out Burger standâa simple red brick structure withâ¦
The new couple set their sights on a rural townâ¦
Short on experience but long on common sense, Harry soughtâ¦
In 1951, Allen Teagle was a teenager itching to joinâ¦
It wasn't the Snyders' desire to build an empire, toâ¦
On February 22, 1951, Esther gave birth to the couple'sâ¦
Harry shrugged his shoulders at the rapid changes taking placeâ¦
In these years, it was easy to see what madeâ¦
Guy and Rich Snyder were increasingly moving in different directions.
Harry's confidence in his youngest son was not misplaced. Whateverâ¦
Rich's tastes ran contrary to those of his parochial parents.
In 1984, Rich founded In-N-Out University, a large-scale management trainingâ¦
Soon In-N-Out Burger began attracting serious attention. Over the years,â¦
As In-N-Out Burger continued to grow and prosper, Rich foundâ¦
In the fall of 1988, following the opening of theâ¦
Rich Snyder liked to think that success could be achievedâ¦
December 15, 1993, was a particularly busy day for Richâ¦
As it turned out, on December 14, Rich had traveledâ¦
In 1994, Guy Snyder celebrated the opening of In-N-Out's hundredthâ¦
Guy's time at the top was short-lived. His troubles soonâ¦
At seventy-nine, Esther Snyder stepped up to assume control ofâ¦
Everyday life at In-N-Out Burger continued. By 2000, the chainâ¦
Although Lynsi had remained out of the spotlight for mostâ¦
It wasn't long before the battle was splashed across theâ¦
The legal endgame came to an abrupt halt with aâ¦
On the dry, desert morning of April 24, 2007, the sky swept clean of clouds, In-N-Out Burger opened its 207th restaurant in Tucson. Located at the edge of the El Con Mall on East Broadway, not far from the campus of the University of Arizona, the opening was the fabled California chain's fourteenth entry in the state. Almost immediately a boisterous crowd appeared, requiring the presence of police officers to direct traffic and help with crowd control. While a swirl of excitement usually accompanied new store openings, the Tucson kickoff seemed to generate an unprecedented level of hysteria. For the first time in years, the area around the depressed and largely vacant El Con was bustling. The pent-up demand for In-N-Out marked a drastic change for the city's oldest shopping center, which had been languishing for so long that a local newspaper had once described its “deserted core” as filled with little more than an “eerie stillness.”
As customers descended upon In-N-Out's freshly paved drive-through, the scene quickly took on the air of a noisy parade. There were businessmen in suits, women in heels, truckers in jeans, college students in T-shirts and with pierced noses, construction workers in heavy boots, and moms with babies on their hips. They all braved the chain's infamously long lines, enduring waits of more than two and three hours. In the sky overhead, news helicopters whirled, capturing the clamor in the parking lot below. After witnessing the ensuing frenzy
from the ground, a local science fiction author named Matt Dinniman was later moved to remark: “If you actually drove by the place today, you'd think Jesus himself was working the shake machine.”
Remarkably, the official kickoff was marked with little fanfare. Two workers carried a simple white sign down East Broadway with the familiar In-N-Out logoâa yellow boomerang arrowâand written in block lettering the words “WE ARE OPEN,” and propped it up on a pair of wooden sawhorse legs. The associates fired up the grill, unlocked the doors, and opened for business. There weren't any strings of colored plastic flags fluttering in the wind to herald the arrival of Tucson's very first In-N-Out; there weren't any prizes offered, furry mascots, or any of the other marketing gimmicks that usually lure customers to new fast-food openings. There was no promotional advertising eitherâjust a small sign that stood on the lot for some time. “Coming Soon, In-N-Out Burger.”
In fact, there was no “grand opening,” at least not in the traditional sense; the carnival atmosphere was created entirely by In-N-Out's rabid fans. The chain didn't need to advertise its opening; for weeks, its devotees had been broadcasting the news to one another.
For two years, ever since word had spread that an In-N-Out was coming to their city, residents had been waiting anxiously. As April 24 approached, a frantic excitement overtook Tucson and the surrounding suburbs. Despite months of speculation and press inquiries, the company, while friendly, revealed littleâso a number of Tucsonans began their own campaign to uncover any and all signs of progress. Driving by the site regularly, they documented sightings of a coat of fresh paint or the pouring of concrete and broadly circulated their findings. When the day finally came that the Tucson In-N-Out was no longer just a matter of hope and rumor, it felt like Christmas in April. “There are so many people excited about these stores coming to town,” was how Dave Smith, a local real estate broker, described the thrill that blanketed the city. “It is like they are almost willing them out of the ground.”
For years, Arizona residents regularly drove across state lines in order to eat one of In-N-Out's vaunted Double-Double burgers.
When In-N-Out opened its first Arizona store in the city of Scottsdale in 2000, Tucsonans got in their cars and made the ninety-mile journey. While Scottsdale might not be considered convenient, it was certainly closer to Tucson than the Lake Havasu City location that opened the same year (which at a distance of 321 miles from Tucson was an unreasonable distance for a burger runâalthough not an entirely uncommon one). In fact, until In-N-Out first arrived in Arizona, many residents flew roundtrip between Phoenix and the Ontario International airport in California expressly for a $2.75 hamburger.
The Tucson debut was handled not unlike a presidential visit or a movie premiere. Prior to the official opening, local dignitaries and members of the city council joined In-N-Out executives at an invitation-only, pre-opening party that also served as a final run-through for the associates. Tucson's media covered the official opening; the
Arizona Daily Star
sent a team of six journalists on an assignment that they dubbed “Operation In-N-Out.”
Ravenous customers began arriving in the dark of night, long before the store's 10:30 a.m. opening. Actually, people began lining up at 2:00 a.m. the day before, some sleeping in their cars overnight. By 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the opening, about a dozen folks were pressed against the front doors. By noon, the crowd had grown appreciably, hundreds of people having descended upon the fast-food restaurant and its signature crossed palm trees. Marveling at the thick, snaking procession of people, Phil Villarreal, a reporter for the
Arizona Daily Star
, recalled soviet-era bread lines in Moscow.
As the day wore on, the walk-in line continued to expand like an unencumbered waistband. By midday it had grown so dense, at times one hundred customers strong and six and seven people deep, that the entire line had taken over a neighboring parking lot and yellow plastic police tape was used to rope off the crowd in as orderly a fashion as possible. As the mercury rose, bright-eyed and smiling In-N-Out associates passed out cups of water and pink lemonade to help relieve both the tedium and the heat for the customers waiting in line. After inspecting what could only be described as a stampede, In-N-Out's vice president of planning and development Carl Van
Fleet assessed the scene with the chain's typical understatement, telling the
, “This is not something that happened overnight. I think it just sort of grew with us.” As night fell, the crowd showed little sign of thinning out. At nearly 10:00 p.m., there were still over one hundred cars in the drive-through lane.
The company temporarily opened a mobile kitchen on-site to help with the constant demand. In-N-Out had already sent in a team of about forty veteran employees (called the “In-N-Out All-Stars”) from existing locations to help the two dozen new associates work the opening. Like a mobile commando unit, the All-Stars are highly skilled and experienced In-N-Out veterans, trained to be able to handle any situation under pressure. Dispatched to every new store opening since about 1988, their job was and is to guarantee a smooth debut. But even with its own precision planning, military execution, and its All-Stars on hand, In-N-Out Burger could have had no idea of the kind of frenzy that the Tucson opening would create.
Drivers sat in their cars for hours, waiting to place their orders. The drive-through line stacked up for blocks, ran out onto the street, and overflowed into the El Con Mall's parking lot, snarling up traffic. A nimble associate wearing a menu affixed to a chain went from car to car taking orders and sending them back to the kitchen via PDA in an attempt to help speed things up.
Others abandoned the pile-up of cars altogether and made the pilgrimage by foot. A swell of people had already formed inside the restaurant; the overflow spilled outside, long past the glass entry doors into controlled chaos. A respectful rush of customers inched their way toward the gleaming stainless steel counter where a group of smiling workers in their crisp white uniforms, red aprons affixed with large silver kilt pins, and paper cadet hats awaited them. Remarkably, despite the constant crush of customers, the associates maintained their smiles throughout the grueling day.
Under a yellow neon sign that spelled out in cursive letters the company's mottoâ“Quality You Can Taste”âthose at the front of the line ordered from In-N-Out's famously limited menu of three burger items, french fries, soft drinks, lemonade, and milkshakesâa
menu that has barely changed since Harry Truman was president. There were no Mediterranean wraps, Caesar chicken salads, or children's menus. Facing the antiseptically clean open kitchen, customers saw that there were no heat lamps, freezers, or microwaves, and the heavy odor of grease and meat was curiously absent. There were no bags of flash-frozen fries on-site either. Rather, in a procedure that has gone unchanged since the chain first opened in 1948, a cheery associate hand-peeled, cut, and fried the raw Kennebec potatoes grown especially for the chain. At In-N-Out, the lettuce is still leafed by hand, the sponge-dough buns are baked dailyâand both the cheese and the ice cream for its shakes remain 100 percent dairy.
After braving the lines, some ordered forty or fifty burgers to bring back to friends and co-workers. One customer, Judi Esposito, arrived in hand with a stockpile of gift coupons worth forty dollars that she had collected for the past year and half in anticipation of the opening. “It sounds crazy,” she told a local reporter, simply thrilled to finally order a meal from In-N-Out on her home turf, “but they're just really good, sloppy hamburgers.”
Those in the know ordered off-menu from what has become known as In-N-Out's “secret menu.” An insider code, it is an unofficial parallel menu that has traveled from Southern California to Northern California and then on to Nevada and Arizona and even beyond In-N-Out's traditional borders. Although nobody knows its exact origins, the secret menu has existed for decades, and knowledge of Animal Style, the 4x4, and the Flying Dutchman has been passed on primarily through word of mouth (although in recent years the secret menu can also be found on In-N-Out's website).
The Tucson opening was In-N-Out's busiest to date. In the days and weeks following the launch, the massive lines and pileups subsided only slightly. A month after the opening, fans reported that the drive-through lane dropped from one hundred cars to fifty, with the waiting time inside averaging about thirty minutes from order to pick up.
After the enthusiastic reception given to the Tucson store, when on the morning of November 15, 2007, In-N-Out Burger unveiled its
second Tucson-area store in the suburb of Marana near Interstate 10, the local NBC affiliate was moved to report, “Big news for Marana today. The town gets its first In-N-Out Burgerâ¦. So not only are we getting bigger around the waistline, so is the area.”
Although the scene was decidedly tamer than the one that consumed the Tucson opening seven months earlier, it was no less anticipated or exciting. Bracing themselves against the hungry crowds, the Marana police set up a command center near the shop on 8180 North Cortaro Road and five off-duty police officers (hired by In-N-Out) were assigned to direct traffic. Half a dozen people staked out places near the front doors in the early morning hours, hoping to be among the first in line.
Available only in California, parts of Nevada, Arizona, and more recently Utah, the opening of a new In-N-Out Burger has long been cause for outsized celebration. When an In-N-Out opened in suburban San Francisco in 2001, there were epic lines for months. In 2003, the anticipated Millbrae opening was delayed because city officials were concerned about the kind of traffic jams that In-N-Out would bring. When in 2007
magazine printed the unconfirmed rumor that In-N-Out Burger was scouting locations in New York City, excited East Coast fans chased down the report, frantically dialing the company's toll-free telephone number.
Golfers and groupies on the PGA Tour cheered when the Scottsdale store opened. Not far from the TPC Scottsdale Golf Course (where the $6 million purse FBR Open is played), the pros began having In-N-Out burgers delivered directly to them following their rounds. When Jonathan Kaye won the tournament in 2004, his pro-am partner was in such a hurry to hit the In-N-Out that he forgot to turn in Kaye's scorecard and ended up calling it in from the drive-through lane. “It was crazy,” Greg Wolf, the course's head professional, later exclaimed. “There were cops directing traffic there for the first month.”
And when, on the eve of the Fiesta Bowl in 2007, a reporter asked Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith if the Buckeyes had any advantage over playing Florida State at Sun Devil Stadium (since it was the team's fourth trip to Phoenix in five years), the Heisman Tro
phy winner replied, “The first thing I am most familiar with is In-N-Out Burger, which is around the corner from our hotel. Probably the height of my day every day is getting a chance to go to In-N-Out Burger. I love those cheeseburgers.”
The little regional chain that was built on the philosophy of quality, made-to-order hamburgers, and “the customer is always king” had over the years drawn fans from every imaginable quarter. In an industry that has come to be seen as a scourge on modern society, responsible for everything from obesity to urban blight to cultural imperialism, this modest, low-slung eatery with the big yellow arrow is unique among fast-food breeds: a chain revered by hamburger aficionados and epicureans, anti-globalization fanatics and corporate raiders, meat-eaters and even vegetarians. Make mention of the three monosyllabic words and a kind of reverie takes hold. People's eyes close and their lips begin to quiver with the pleasures of sense memory. “For years, In-N-Out was the other woman in my life,” my mother once told me. “I'd be cooking dinner and your father would go to an In-N-Out on his way home from the office. He'd eat a Double-Double, fries, and a chocolate shake. I'd have dinner on the table, and he'd say âI'm not hungry.'”
The family-owned, fiercely independent chain has remained virtually unchanged since its inception in 1948. It is the envy of the industry and the darling of investment bankers, who routinely put In-N-Out on their IPO wish list. In fact, by the end of Eric Schlosser's screed against the industry,
Fast Food Nation
, as nearly every other chain is pilloried and left in a heap, In-N-Out Burger remains standing virtually unscathed. It has long been adored by its legions of fans, whose main complaint seems to be that there just aren't enough of the restaurants around.