Noticed Burger Cult

But unlike McD's, which has sold so many Big Macs that their Styro-boxes litter the Earth from Antarctica to Red Square and has come to epitomize all that is tainted in North American culture, In-N-Out has managed to stay both small and beautiful. Now run by Esther, 81, (president after the death of her husband and two sons), it still makes its burgers (and wraps them in paper) just the way it did in 1948. It is perhaps this special status as the anti-Wal-Mart of fast food that draws lunch-time lineups at In-N-Out, while, last year, McDonald's reported the first quarterly loss in its history.

The Globe and Mail
March 27, 2004

Noticed Burger Cult
Karen von Hahn

What could the unlikely trio of Courtney Love, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and my 10-year-old son, Philip, possibly have in common? They are all dedicated fans of In-N-Out Burger — a California drive-through that is such a welcome throwback it is quickly developing cult status.

Smallish (at 181 somewhat hard-to-find locations in California, Nevada and Arizona), and family-owned since 1948, when it opened the West Coast's first drive-through hamburger stand, In-N-Out is like a trip to Pop's Choklit Shoppe in an Archie comic. Behind the sparkling white counter, under a frieze of red flamingos in surfboard-art silhouette, squeaky-clean teenagers in paper cadet caps and bright-red aprons secured with oversize kilt pins cheerily take your order, hand-cut Kennebec potatoes into French fries, flip burgs on the grill and froth real ice cream (chocolate, strawberry or vanilla, naturally) into milkshakes right in front of your eyes.

The whole experience is delicious and deliciously uncomplicated. There are only four items on the menu: burgers, fries, sodas and shakes. No "fajitas" sitting in plastic under a heat lamp, or mandarin chicken salads made in Atlanta and "finished" on premises — only actual grilled hamburgers the way you remember they used to taste. Every item is fresh, unprocessed, made to order and, best of all, prepared to your specifications in a raffish insider code known to In-N-Outers as the "secret menu" (see sidebar).

As the un-chain that stays regional, and serves actual food (burgers are 100 per cent pure beef ground daily by In-N-Out's butchers, fries are fried in 100 per cent vegetable oil, fresh lettuce is hand-leafed daily), In-N-Out has suddenly woken up from its fifties slumber to find itself a celebrity. With devoted fans such as Alias star Jennifer Garner, who told Joan Rivers on the red carpet that the first thing she would do after the Oscars was head straight to the In-N-Out, and bad girl Courtney Love, who insisted on a last trip to the In-N-Out drive-through en route to detox, it seems that the Hollywood set would actually prefer an In-N-Out cheeseburger to champagne and caviar. Ever a barometer of what's in and what's out, Vanity Fair's Carter opted to serve In-N-Out burgers as retro-ironic soul food at this year's post-Oscars bash at Morton's.

"They cut to the heart of the perfect hamburger," Carter told The New York Times. "And they're called In-N-Out Burger. I happen to love the name."

Celebrity attention may serve to explain how In-N-Out has suddenly emerged as the next Krispy Kreme: a junk food fix that is so yummy and hard to get (before it was everywhere), that scoring it becomes a style must. But In-N-Out has also found itself fans among discerning foodies who would rather starve than eat doughnuts. Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, has called it "a great California institution." Even Eric Schlosser — the author of the tell-all bestseller Fast Food Nation, which revealed, among other terrifying facts, that fast-food purveyors "scent" their French fries with synthetic additives developed at the same New Jersey labs that create Calvin Klein perfumes — is a devotee.

"I think they're great," Schlosser told The New York Times in a 2002 story on the burger cult. "It isn't health food, but it's food with integrity. It's the real deal."

What is real about In-N-Out is not only the food, but the chain's un-chain quality. It is interesting to note that in 1948, when Harry Snyder and his wife, Esther, first opened their little drive-through in Baldwin Park, another burger joint called McDonald's opened its first drive-through in neighbouring San Bernardino.

But unlike McD's, which has sold so many Big Macs that their Styro-boxes litter the Earth from Antarctica to Red Square and has come to epitomize all that is tainted in North American culture, In-N-Out has managed to stay both small and beautiful. Now run by Esther, 81, (president after the death of her husband and two sons), it still makes its burgers (and wraps them in paper) just the way it did in 1948. It is perhaps this special status as the anti-Wal-Mart of fast food that draws lunch-time lineups at In-N-Out, while, last year, McDonald's reported the first quarterly loss in its history.

But then again, there might be some higher forces at play. Last week, on the hunt for authenticity and a great burger after an early morning flight, we found ourselves negotiating the freeways that ring Phoenix. We made our way to the In-N-Out counter and ordered, as instructed, cheeseburgers "animal style" off the secret, unpublished menu. After digging in, we found ourselves in such a state of bliss that we almost missed a tiny inscription on one of the hastily discarded bits of packaging. On the corner of In-N-Out's hamburger wrapper it read: REVELATION 3:20. We checked the milkshake cup. It was printed with PROVERBS 3:5.

Is it possible the food is so divine because it's some sort of fast-food sacrament? At a neighbouring table, another believer hoisted his fries heavenward like some sort of offering. My son rubbed his belly and smiled like a Buddha. On reflection, he looked transcendent.

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The secret menu
Only the pros know that if you order your burger "animal style," it comes with sautéed onions, pickles, mustard and extra "special sauce."
"Two by four" is the cardiac alert: You get two patties with four slices of cheese.
"Protein style" is an Atkins special. The burger patty comes wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun.
A "Flying Dutchman" is two patties with cheese, sans bun or toppings.
A "wish burger" is the vegetarian delight: an In-N-Out burger with everything but the meat.
A "Neapolitan shake" is a swirl of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream.
And you can order your fries "light," or if you like them extra crispy, "well done."


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