One night before a Dodgers game, soon after I had moved to Southern California, a friend took me to an In-N-Out Burger in Glendale. On our way over he told me about In-N-Out’s Secret Menu. The meat mecca officially lists only a few items, but there are infinite variations. They could cook my burger Protein Style (breadless, wrapped in lettuce), or I could get the Flying Dutchman (two beef patties and two slices of cheese, no bun).
“But you should try it Animal Style,” he said. This, he explained, was a burger with mustard cooked into the patty, topped with pickles, grilled onions, and extra sauce. The sauce was some sort of tricked-up variation of Thousand Island dressing, and it was awesome.
“Argh,” I said. “No sauce.”
I hate all secret sauces, and always have.
“So get it without sauce,” my friend said. “They don’t care.”
“Yeah, man. They’ll do whatever you want.”
With that phrase, a great fast food portal opened to me.
Thinking Outside the Bun
In-N-Out, headquartered in Irvine, California, has 232 stores in only four states—Nevada, Arizona, California, and Utah. Though most Americans have never tasted an In-N-Out burger, many who have believe they’re the best in the country. The company is secretive about a new store’s opening, but when word gets out, people start lining up in their cars the night before, waiting for their fixes like devout Catholics hoping to glimpse the recently appeared visage of a weeping Virgin Mary. It literally becomes a burger pilgrimage.
The legends about the lengths to which de-votees will go are legion. When Paris Hilton got pulled over for a DUI in 2006, her excuse was that she was “really hungry and wanted to have an In-N-Out burger.” Countless Californians rhapsodize religiously about their burger and make the nearest stand their first stop after touching down on the West Coast.
High-end chefs love it, too. New York restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who in 2003 debuted a $69 burger, has said that In-N-Out inspired his masterpiece. Thomas Keller, founder of the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley and one of the world’s great chefs, is perhaps the chain’s biggest fan. In In-N-Out Burger, journalist Stacy Perman’s recently published book on the chain, Keller claims to have collected thousands of gift cards, hats, pins, and T-shirts. He makes it a habit, when visiting L.A., to pick up a bottle of wine and take it to In-N-Out for a meal. “In-N-Out reminds me of the food I liked as a child —the classic burger and fries,” Keller told me. “I think the best way to celebrate is with food that brings those good feelings back.”
All In-N-Out’s burgers are cooked to order, with not a heat lamp or microwave in sight, and made from fresh beef free of additives, preservatives, and filler. It’s a far cry from the reconstituted mystery meat most of us associate with fast food. French fries get the same treatment. They’re hand-peeled, never frozen, and cooked in vegetable oil. Lettuce is leafed by hand. Buns are baked the day they’re served. Milk shakes contain 100 percent ice cream, not the concentrated ice mixtures that pass for shakes elsewhere in the fast food nation.
Beyond the freshness of the fare, In-N-Out stores are always meticulously—almost creepily—clean, and the employees always smile. They have good reason; the starting salary at an In-N-Out is $10 an hour, and everyone has health benefits. The average store manager makes just shy of six figures. The company refuses to franchise its stores, and in a fast food world where expansion can’t happen quickly and carelessly enough, it opens new branches at a deliberate, almost glacial pace.
The company’s founder, Harry Snyder, laid this all out decades ago when he opened the first In-N-Out in Baldwin Park in 1948. Despite family turmoil—Snyder’s successor, his son Rich (who famously decided to put Bible verses on the company’s packaging) died in a 1993 plane crash; Rich’s brother Guy, who became chairman, died of drug-related compli-cations in 1999; lawsuits and infighting followed—the company’s course and public image have remained remarkably steady. “They’re where fast food began,” says Stacy Perman, “but they’re not where it ended up.”
To its customers In-N-Out is an inextricable part of SoCal culture. In the ’80s it became standard practice for dudes to cut out the b and r so their bumper stickers read in-n-out urge. On just the second night of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, Tom Hanks couldn’t shut up about In-N-Out, calling it one of the “true great things about Los Angeles.” And In-N-Out references have appeared in The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and The Big Lebowski.
The In-N-Out Urge, like the Dude, abides.
Here’s the Beef
In-N-Out’s Secret Menu is the core motivator of its fans’ obsessive behavior. “It makes them feel like they’re part of something,” notes Perman. All stores have Animal Style and Protein Style cash register keys. But even though the company has trademarked many of the names, they’ve never officially promoted them.
“We don’t really consider ourselves as having a Secret Menu,” says Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out’s ¿vice president of planning and development. “We definitely didn’t create it or set out to do so. We consider all those things merely variations on a theme.” Still, whether by design or not, the company has cannily created a special language that only its clientele can speak. There are Web sites, bulletin boards, even an online Fantasy Menu.
A few years ago John Marcotte, a writer in Sacramento, scoured the Internet for evidence of In-N-Out Secret Menu items and compiled a master list, which he published on his online ’zine, Badmouth. He put them to the test by taking “a group of 15 to 20 family members and friends” to the nearest In-N-Out. Each had their items to order. “In-N-Out is responsive,” Marcotte says. “If you tell them what you want and it doesn’t violate a health code, they’re gonna make it.”
“If you’re a picky customer, we love you,” Van Fleet says. “Come in and tell us how you want your burger made, and we’ll make it for you.”
On Halloween night 2004, Will Young, then a 27-year-old from San Francisco, went into a Las Vegas In-N-Out with seven friends and ordered a 100x100 burger. This meant 100 patties and 100 pieces of cheese, with a piece of bread on either end. “We were just idiots. None of us had any background in competitive eating,” says Young. “We stupidly thought we’d eat before partying. Only one person threw up. The rest of us called it a night and passed out.”
Once word of this stunt got around, In-N-Out actually ended up banning any burger larger than a 4x4. “I think I did society a favor by having it banned,” Young says. “Now I’ll just order a Double-Double with fries. You know, like a regular person.”
I’m Lovin’ It
Just a few weeks ago, I went with my family to In-N-Out for dinner. I stepped up to the counter a very picky customer.
“Welcome to In-N-Out,” said the smiling employee. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let me get one Flying Dutchman, one cheeseburger Animal Style, and one Double-Double with the patty cooked with mustard, with lettuce, tomato, and pickle, but no sauce. Also, three fries, one of them well-done, and three chocolate shakes.”
The employee placidly clicked a few keys and looked up.
“Is that it?” he said.
“Yep,” I said.
And then he read my order back to me verbatim, assuring me there would be no sauce.
“It’ll be just a few minutes,” he said, “because of those well-done fries.”
“No problem,” I said.
Dinner was delicious, but he had me at “Welcome to In-N-Out.”
For more on these tasty menu items, see In-N-Out's Menu Decoded.