(If that title doesn't bring 'em in, they ain't comin'!)
I'm virtually never out West without finding myself at the In-N-Out Burger that's a block from our hotel in Ontario. I was thinking tonight (as I munched on my Animal- / Protein-Style cheeseburger and well-done fries) about what exactly is so magnetic about the place. It's not for the food per se, though the food is as good as any burger place I've ever been to (only Las Vegas's StripBurger outranks them because of the inimitable setting, and the two Shake Shacks I've eaten at--Miami and Dubai--can match the food taste-wise). But there are good burgers everywhere; the Appleton-and-Menasha-only Tom's Drive-In chain near my house makes a burger very nearly as good--and they're quick and clean and local.
But there's something about In-N-Out.
|(Cheeseburger "animal-style"--grilled onions, pickles, and special sauce--and "protein-style"--with lettuce instead of a bun--and fries cooked-to-order. I get mine "well done," which gets 'em another minute in the fry vat.)|
Part of the mystique is, for me, the California connection. I love this part of the country; it's a place I'd happily live, damn the expense. The weather is almost always better here than wherever I fly in from, there's a great Latino vibe, and our hotel is near mountains and surrounded by palm trees. CA is Car Country (a point I've labored before) so my fetish about cars is very much satisfied (a couple weeks ago I spent a day hanging with a friend in L.A. on another layover, and unbeknownst to me he showed up at the train station in a Nissan Leaf! I've really been obsessing about electric cars for the last six months, and OF COURSE my CA friend is already driving one.)
But In-N-Out. As I've written before, I learned of their status as something more than your run-of-the-mill burger joint a decade ago while watching Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me. Spurlock, who spent a month eating only McDonald's food (and gained something like 45 lbs. and nearly had a heart attack in the process) had a couple of supporting interviews in the film, and one of these was Eric Schlosser, author of the book Fast Food Nation. I remember being most intrigued by Schlosser's comments about In-N-Out (I paraphrase): he said that while burgers and fries may never qualify as health food, they're not intrinsically so terrible as the collective state of America's fitness would have us believe. What is bad about burgers and fries, he said, is how we execute them. People like McDonald's choose to implement the All-American Meal in a particularly harmful, almost poisonous, way, a function of what will make more and more and more money, almost without any regard for the consequences. The ingredients are quite far removed from what we expect (at times not even identifiable--think Wonder Bread and Pink Slime and Velveeta), and Spurlock engaged in a little experiment to show how even mold won't grow on McDonald's food left out in the open. For months.
In-N-Out, Schlosser says, is an example of how one can do this meal and do it properly. They have a very limited menu--four items, I believe: burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas--and they've concentrated since Day One on doing just these things and doing them correctly. Their french fries are potatoes and salt and a good quality, no-cholesterol vegetable oil. Period. (One of the atmospheric bits of visiting the restaurant is watching people cutting the fries, one peeled potato at a time, into a sink full of running water. From there, they drain and are put into one of six or eight fry vats next to the sink.) The buns are locally-baked. Their beef for all their stores comes from a single processing plant which they own and control, and the meat is never frozen. (There was some question as to whether they've opened a second plant, and I see on Wikipedia that they have constructed several new distribution centers and are slowly expanding from these.) Everything is cooked to order, and you can customize everything to your tastes.
|(Simple presentation, with reusable trays and very simple disposable packaging.)|
The chain began at the same time as McDonald's, but they followed a different philosophy. The goal was not to get as big and as profitable as possible as quickly as possible, but rather to do a finite thing to perfection and do it in a way that sustains everyone involved. To that end, they are noted for paying considerably better wages than the mandated minimums, and not surprisingly they have a really well-oiled, happy, considerate, and professional workforce. Every time I've been there I'm surprised at how outgoing and courteous everyone is. And the place is always packed (as are the other locations I've been to). Tonight there were probably 15 people running the restaurant. Nobody looked to be older than 25, and everyone was smartly dressed and seemed genuinely glad to be there. And, again, the place was packed.
|(Clean, well-lit workspace and everybody courteous and looking sharp.)|
My sensibilities are well-known, and I'm sure I'm spring-loaded to see the worst in any huge corporate entity. But I think it says everything that McDonald's, when faced with the criticism that they contrast unfavorably in most every way to In-N-Out Burger--food quality, impact on society and the environment, well-being of employees, etc.--countered not by rethinking how they operate but by saying "everybody else is doing the same thing." It's everything I hate about corporate America rolled into a freshly-painted, style-over-substance package (worse than style-over-substance; it's style-that-we-hope-will-conceal-a-vile-substance). In-N-Out doesn't seem to spend a fortune on marketing, their packaging is simple and all-paper, and it seems like a genuinely great place to work.
I'm sure my visits here--the fact that I'm never here except as a tourist--gives everything a rose-colored tint, and doubtless there are plenty of employees of In-N-Out, past and present, who can tell less-than-flattering tales. But I can only know what I see and experience myself, and the experience here is markedly different from any other burger place I've been to. And I've been to a few.