You might think the cuisine du jour of Los Angeles would be something trendy or healthy—something out of Mexican or an Asian culture perhaps; definitely something “fusion.” But it turns out the real passion of Angelinos, one that unites the many disparate peoples and tastes of this massive community, is a fast food hamburger joint with a name more suggestive of digestive problems than a White Castle slider.
No matter where you live or whether or not you’ve ever heard of In-N-Out Burger, your life has been affected by them. In 1948, when they were first starting in the L.A. neighborhood of Baldwin Park, the founders Harry and Esther Snyder were able to obtain only 10 square feet of land, nowhere near enough for seating. To make a go of it, Harry created a two-way speaker box and opened California’s first drive-through.
Today there are 286 In-N-Out Burgers in five states. The chain’s owner, Esther and Harry’s 32-year-old granddaughter Lynsi, is the youngest female billionaire in the United States, and its popularity is without parallel in the fast-food world. Drive-through lanes regularly stretch a dozen cars; cherry red seating inside and out teems with a United Nations of customers. Most venues pulse with the kind of nonstop, elbow-to-elbow action and fast-talking cashiers one expects to find rather in the harried realms of the distant East than in the laid-back metropolis of Los Angeles.
In many ways In-N-Out’s success here is mystifying. You cannot order a salad at In-N-Out. They do not serve lattes, nor a dozen different “combos” in multiple sizes. The official menu has only six items on it: hamburger; cheeseburger or double-double (a two-patty cheeseburger); French fries; milkshakes; soda.
A secret menu, with fun-to-say terms like “Animal Style” or “The Flying Dutchman,” provides a few additional menu items and modifications. But compared to McDonald’s or even Subway, In-N-Out remains very much a no-frills operation.
The same goes for its corporate presence. In a town known for its press agents and spin, the management of In-N-Out doesn’t give interviews. Inquiries for this article on even the most banal of topics—How did the secret menu first come about? What kind of training does your staff get? What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the fast-food industry today?—were all politely, repeatedly rebuffed.
The company has an amazing story to tell. Everything it sells is fresh; it has never used transfats; and nothing is ever microwaved or frozen (except the ice cream in the homemade milkshakes). Chefs from Julia Child to Gordon Ramsay have praised the quality of In-N-Out’s food.
They’re also apparently quite good to their employees. In an industry in which entry-level employees rarely crack the minimum wage, In-N-Out starts its employees at over $10 an hour. Managers make over $100,000 a year plus benefits and performance-based incentives like all-expenses-paid vacations.
Yet despite all those positives, beyond the corporate website and a few facts and figures on In-N-Out food wrappers, the company refuses to promote itself. It has no celebrity spokesperson, no commercials gone viral or staged events. In-N-Out just makes hamburgers, and people show up.
The Hollywood ending to a story like this has the company overcoming cocky fast-food super-conglomerates to win some international hamburger contest or Charlton Heston racing into frame screaming about secret ingredients.
But much like its popularity in Los Angeles, the final twist on In-N-Out is anything but the expected. Check any wrapper, any paper cup or fry boat from In-N-Out and you will find somewhere, in small type, a citation from Scripture. The inside of the bottom rim of one milkshake cup has “Prov 3:5” (“Trust in the Lord with all thy heart”); at the edge of the burger wrapper, “Rev 3:20” (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock”).
The company offers no explanation for the Scripture citations (of course). Perhaps they are a quiet means of evangelization or a moment of grateful praise for all the success the business has known.
Or perhaps it’s a kind of blessing on the meal and all those who will eat it, people from all walks of life whose paths do not otherwise cross, that elsewhere in the world might even be in mortal conflict. Here they sit, cheek by jowl, all together, relishing their lunch.