Monday, August 07, 2006

That's what a hamburger's all about

Esther Snyder, the cofounder of the In-N-Out hamburger chain, died over the weekend. She was 86. (Always an ironic age at which to pass on.)

For those of you not blessed to live in California, Nevada, or Arizona, the name In-N-Out Burger probably means nothing to you. For many Left Coasters and Southwesterners, however, the very mention of In-N-Out sends salivary glands into hyperactivity.

Started by Mrs. Snyder and her late husband Harry in suburban Los Angeles in 1948, In-N-Out may be the largest — and perhaps last — family-owned fast-food chain in America. The company has always been doggedly independent, both in its business philosophy — the privately-held chain only recently topped 200 outlets, a paltry number compared with such contemporaries as McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box — and in its menu — in an era of burger joints hawking Chicken McNuggets and deli sandwiches on ciabatta bread, In-N-Out still serves nothing but hamburgers, French fries, and drinks. Period. No chicken, no fish, no salads, no frou-frou.

In-N-Out Burger's claims to fame are legion: its "off-the-board" menu options; the secretive nature of its founding family, who refuse to make public reports of sales figures or profits; the spectacularly bad personal fortunes of that same founding family (Harry Snyder died of lung cancer just as the company was beginning to expand outside its Los Angeles base, while both Snyder sons died six years apart in separate accidents after taking over control of their parents' company); the cryptic religious references that appear on its product packaging. To its fans, however, In-N-Out is famous mostly for tasty, freshly prepared (the fries are cut from whole potatoes on the spot) food.

Insiders well know that, although one can't order an entree other than a burger at In-N-Out, said burger can be obtained with numerous "secret" preparations that don't appear on the published menu. (These options are, however, preprogrammed into the cash registers, so the counter staff can charge appropriately.) For example, ordering a burger "animal style" means that the inside of the bun is coated with mustard and grilled, and the sandwich topped with cooked onions (as opposed to the standard raw) plus an extra dollop of Thousand Island dressing. (I'm told that you can order fries "animal style" also, though I have no clue why you'd want onions and salad dressing on fries.) Hefty eaters can belly up for a "2x4" (a double cheeseburger with a total of four slices of cheese) or a "4x4" (four beef patties and four cheese slices, informally known as a cardiologist's nightmare). The carbohydrate-averse can call for a "flying Dutchman" (a double cheeseburger without the bun) or a burger "protein style" (a beef patty wrapped in lettuce).

Thanks to the religious convictions of the Snyder family, In-N-Out food is served in packaging subtly adorned with Bible references, usually in an unobtrusive location, such as the underside of drink cups. It's an interesting paradox for a burger joint whose name sounds like a crude innuendo. In fact, for years a common sight on California highways was an In-N-Out Burger bumper sticker with the first and last letters of "Burger" removed. I haven't seen one of these in a while, suggesting to me that either the joke got old or the company quit giving away bumper stickers. I'm not sure which is the truth.

When I was active in chorus, our rehearsal night carpool frequently stopped at an In-N-Out for dinner on the way home. I'm not a big hamburger fan — my usual order at a burger chain is a fish sandwich, if there's one on the menu — but if you like your beef on a bun, I have to admit that In-N-Out does a pretty solid version. (I'm not as enthusiastic about the fries — prepackaged and processed or not, McDonald's still beats every other chain's fries all hollow.)

The drive-through line at our local outlet — the northernmost In-N-Out on the California coast — often wraps around the building, so they must be doing something right.

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4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Tom Galloway offered these pearls of wisdom...

for the story of ordering a 100x100. Note the phrase "drunk weekend in Vegas" pops up right at the start of the story.

For odd reasons, I know that as of now, an In-n-Out will only do a 8x8 or smaller burger.

Personally, of the SoCal burger chains, I prefer Fatburger, which is finally starting to open locations in NoCal. In particular, they have steak fries which give McD's a run for their money in the fry dept.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Donna offered these pearls of wisdom...

I'm not a fan of dining out in fast food establishments. However, I did have the opportunity to dine @ one of the In-N-Out Burger locations last November in Sacramento with a dear old friend. It had been a long day of traveling by air from the east coast to the west coast to see the Eagles in concert and my friend Jo treated me to supper after she picked me up from the airport. 'Twas the best burger I've had in ages and the company wasn't too bad either!

5:05 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Thanks for the link, Tom. That "100x100" is insane. That's at least a couple of whole cows right there.

Next time you're out this way, Donna, we'll hit the RP In-N-Out. Anything for you, kid. :)

5:42 PM  
Blogger Mr. Fabulous offered these pearls of wisdom...

It took me a moment to comprehend the "86" comment. But once I did I smiled to myself and allowed the cool breeze of your cleverness to wash over me...

Too much?

3:01 AM  

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