As a New Yorker, I've always imagined In-N-Out Burger as a faraway heaven of savory deliciousness. While well-aware of many West Coasters' fanatical loyalty to the burger chain, I got my burger fixes at Shake Shack and came to peace with my distance from what many consider the country's best fast food burger. But after reading Stacy Perman's comprehensive history of the chain, In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain that Breaks All the Rules, I don't think I can wait much longer before booking it cross-country for a Double-Double.
Perman's book was researched over the span of two years. She merges historical research, over a hundred interviews, and much economic data into a multi-faceted look at this iconic burger chain. The book details the development of In-N-Out as it was first conceived by its founders, Harry and Esther Snyder, through its modern-day form.
The first In-N-Out was opened in Baldwin Park, California in 1948. In a post-war, rapidly modernizing America, food was increasingly being prepared and consumed outside the home. Burger shacks began popping up in urban centers, and demand was high. After a few less-successful entrepreneurial ventures, the Snyders got on the burger bandwagon and began serving fast food in earnest.
The first In-N-Out introduced some revolutionary practices to the fast food industry. For one thing, the chain was by all reliable accounts the first drive-through restaurant. And not only did customers get their burgers with "No Delay" (In-N-Out's first slogan), they placed orders through the very first two-way speakers. Harry Snyder never trademarked his invention, and soon it became omnipresent in the fast-food industry. But In-N-Out can claim to have truly put the "fast" in fast food.
From its start, the Snyders believed in "Quality, Cleanliness, and Service." In-N-Outs served (and continue to serve) the best meat and local produce on its burgers, and cuts potatoes by hand for each batch of fries. By keeping the menu small and incentivizing employees with above-average salaries and benefits, service was efficient and friendlier than at most burger joints. Customers came to see In-N-Out as a community gathering place rather than just a quick dinner. The town of Baldwin Park adopted the chain as its pride and joy, and residents to this day affiliate strongly with its presence.
The Snyders didn't believe in franchising or public ownership of the company, and at the peak of In-N-Out's expansion they opened only 10 or 12 new shops per year. They intended to keep In-N-Out under family ownership indefinitely, but the death of Harry Snyder and the tragic deaths of his two sons left an elderly Esther Snyder in the role of president, with no direct heirs to the chain. The early 2000s saw much litigation among trustees of the company, and the normally private family was forced to air its dirty laundry to publications. But today, the chain is under stable management, continuing to uphold high standards of food and service, and keeping its slow pace of expansion.
Perman provides a compelling look at the inner workings of this cult burger chain. The book provides discussion of the changing public perception of fast food, In-N-Out's role among other industry giants, and the challenges faced by family-owned businesses. If you are intimately familiar with the chain's food, you will be enthralled to know the details of its operation and growth. And if, like me, you've never experienced the joy that is the In-N-Out burger—well, you will certainly become convinced that your life is empty without the phrase "Animal Style" in your everyday lexicon.
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