The Magazine

King Burger

Harry and Esther Snyder and the fastest food in the West.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By KARI BARBIC
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In-N-Out Burger

A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain
That Breaks All the Rules

by Stacy Perman

HarperBusiness, 352 pp., $24.99


"Double-Double, grilled onions, ketchup and spread only"--I repeated what has been my standard order for the last 10 years. I perfected my In-N-Out Burger order in high school after several years of good, but less-than-perfect, variants. Ask any Californian or expat their In-N-Out order and they'll be able to recite it for you on the spot.

I left California for college, and then later moved to the east coast, so In-N-Out visits are now more precious because of their rarity. It had been eight months since my last visit, and now it was time for my first meal back in California. Just south of the intersection of Highways 99 and 41 in Fresno stands Store #82. The Double-Double, named for its double helping of meat and cheese, was just as fresh and glorious as I remembered.

Here's my testimonial: In-N-Out Burger quality is one thing you can count on in the state of California, quality that began over 60 years ago and has been kept fresh ever since.

In In-N-Out Burger, Stacy Perman examines the success of a California culinary classic. At the end of World War II, Harry and Esther Snyder set out to make a living by making a good hamburger in Baldwin Park, California. They founded In-N-Out Burger on October 22, 1948. "Do one thing and do it the best you can" was Harry's mantra, and he established his business on a three-word motto: "Quality, Cleanliness, and Service." Perman follows the company's timeline and development to show how this motto has affected every aspect of the empire, from its inception to its continued growth and popularity.

The simple menu of hamburgers, french fried potatoes, and milk shakes is much as it was when the first store opened--other than occasional price increases, of course. The company likes to boast that it does not own microwaves or heat lamps because everything on the menu is fresh, from veggies to all-beef (never frozen) patties to fresh cut french fries from real potatoes. All hamburgers are grilled fresh to order. It's simple fare done well, and the customers keep coming back.

I can still recall the anticipation and excitement that accompanied the opening of the first In-N-Out in my hometown of Bakersfield in 1991: Store #65. From the day it opened, the place was packed. Crowds are normal at any In-N-Out Burger, especially during the lunch rush, but long lines pose little deterrence to faithful customers.

Perman sets the stage with the opening of Store #207 in Tucson, on April 24, 2007, and its more than enthusiastic reception:

Ravenous customers began arriving in the dark of the 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. .  .  . By noon .  .  . hundreds of people [had] 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.

I've never witnessed bread lines, but I can understand the enthusiasm accompanying a new outlet. Before Store #65 (Bakersfield), In-N-Out was a rare road trip treat for our family on our way to or from Los Angeles. That was nearly a two-hour excursion, but now we could drive through any day of the week with #65 a mere ten-minute drive from home.

In the early days of my In-N-Out experience, my order was simple: a single hamburger with ketchup only, and a chocolate milk shake. At the age of eight I had an immature understanding of what an all-beef patty should be; I would not discover the joys of the "special sauce" until I was a freshman in high school. With a local In-N-Out, I had the opportunity to experiment with various toppings, and learn the "secret menu."

Since all their burgers are made fresh and to-order, and the primary goal is to please the customer, In-N-Out encourages ordering creativity. This is what led to the infamous "secret menu"--"secret," in the sense that it was originally passed by word of mouth. Although it still does not appear on the standard menus, the company publishes most items from the secret menu on its website.