In-N-Out and The Real California Cuisine

Cover of "In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-C...
Cover via Amazon

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast Food Chain that Breaks All the Rules
Stacey Perman
HarperBusiness
368 pp.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m more of a Fatburger guy. Where I grew up, near Westwood, we had a Fatburger, not an In-N-Out, and I developed a taste for the massive Double King burger. It was huge (probably 2/3 of a pound of beef), it was messy, and it came with a bag of steak fries that delivered the full starch of a very large baked potato. Of course, you had to hose off afterwards, but that was part of the experience.

I did not convert easily, even after discovering an In-N-Out a few blocks from my girlfriend’s high school in 1981. I considered myself something of an aficionado of the hamburger sandwich, and I felt that while the Double-Double was undoubtedly good, it wasn’t earth shattering. Fatburger was still on top, followed closely by Cassell’s down on 6th Street in Koreatown, Boll Weevil in San Diego, and Hinano’s in Venice

As I have aged, though, and as my palette has matured and the sheer quantity of ground cow twixt the buns has declined in culinary importance, I find myself going back to In-N-Out with greater regularity. My wife, born in China, was never a burger fan, but she has dreams about In-N-Out during our long sojourns abroad. My son? Fuggedaboudit. In-N-Out, hands down.

So it was as something of a fanboy that I picked up Stacey Perman’s middleweight tome, and I did so not without trepidation. Sausage lovers know that seeing the process can kill the pleasure, and I didn’t want more knowledge to equal a disgust for the product. At the same time, I didn’t want Perman to gloss over the ugly bits that are a part of the story of any successful endeavor.She didn’t, and the book is the better for it and the chain’s reputation little the worse. She does not shy away from the ugly feuding that ripped through the founding Snyder family when the second generation took the reins. And while she is restrained in her appraisal of sole Snyder grandchild Lynsi Martinez, she gently suggests (or incites in the reader, I’m not sure which) some gentle reservations about the company’s fate under the ownership of a generation twice removed from the beliefs of its founders.

Where the book shines is in its descriptions of the virtues that have made In-N-Out an institution: the Snyders’ obsession with fresh ingredients that limited the chain’s geographic growth; their dedication to making the company a great place to work, even behind the counter; their desire to stay close to their roots in the Inland Empire; their creation of processes that not only kept food cheap but made it better; their focus on simplicity, and their refusal to follow everyone else in the business, including friend and occasional competitor Carl Karcher, into the abyss of franchising for fear of diluted standards. The Snyders clearly didn’t want to make burgers, they wanted to make good food, in both the sense of quality and process.

What puzzles me is why Perman didn’t probe the fundamental contradiction that is In-N-Out. How is it that a fast-food burger chain can become a state icon when we Californians seem so dedicated to the idea of a healthier way of life? Are we all just culinary hypocrites like Jimmy Buffett‘s “Junk-Food Junkie?” Or is there a deeper explanation? Could it be that, deep down, we see In-N-Out is something more, as the harbinger of a cuisine that allows us to eat all of the foods that give us pleasure without the post-belch remorse? Food that is as good for our bodies and souls as it is for our palettes?

Is this not what Harry and Esther Snyder were really trying to achieve? And is that not the essence of the California Dream, the pleasurable made pure, the sin made virtuous?

Contemplate these questions as you read Perman’s book. And follow them where they lead you. At the very least, it should change the way you think about the future of fast food in California, if not America.

One final word of advice: do not read this book if you will at any time after Chapter One be further from an In-N-Out than 30 minutes driving time. Trust me on this. I read the book in China, and the resulting In-N-Out Urges tested my sanity and my self-restraint.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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