By Ben Bowers
on 10.26.12

In-N-Out Burger is something of a cult to those living outside of the chain’s west-coast bubble, proselytized by endless waves of sunkissed acolytes devoted to spreading the good burger word. Their brief testaments, filled with whispers of “animal fries”, “secret menus” and multiplied stacks of beef and cheese, speak of a fast-food paradise whose divine inspiration is forever out of reach of infidels accustomed to Whoppers and Big Macs.

What truly separates this meat-and-potatoes chain from the Arches, Kings, and Pony-tailed gingers of this world though? We don’t have all of the answers, and never will — as much as we’ve tried during Month of Beef. But like any good prophet worth their grape Kool-Aid spritzer, we at least know that retelling In-N-Out’s story is as good of a place to start as any on the path toward fast food enlightenment.

The story of the country’s coolest burger chain begins with the company’s founders, Harry and Esther Snyder. Harry was a WWII veteran who found work after the service as a caterer of baked goods. Esther spent time in the women’s branch of the Navy, serving as a surgical nurse, and eventually obtained a degree in Zoology from Seattle Pacific University. They met each other at the restaurant Esther was managing after she graduated.

Take Note:

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD PALM TREE

You know you’re In-N-Out order, well, inside-out (2×2, mustard grilled, animal style, please). You can rattle off every location on the Western seaboard and can sniff out freshly cut fries within 1,200 yards of a deep fryer. But here’s something you may not have known, and surprise, it has nothing to do with a burger.

First, the next time you find yourself driving up to an In-N-Out, try to stop salivating for 5 seconds and look around the property. You’ll see that there are probably some palm trees on the premises. “Big deal” you’re saying, “it’s California”. Look more closely though. You may notice that a pair of those palm trees are planted in an X-formation. Now why is that?

Your first answer is wrong. It’s not because some hungry landscaper botched his planting job distracted by the smell of beef. Rather, it’s symbolic of founder Harry Synder’s love of Stanley Kramer’s movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (we never tire of movie lore). Specifically, it refers to the iconic scene that depicts the characters seeking out hidden treasure beneath a big “W” made from four palm trees, of which the two middle form an “X”. And there you have it, another notch in In-N-Out lore for your burgeoning waist line’s belt.

Neither had experience in the emerging quick service industry, but in 1948, the newlyweds opened the first In-N-Out in the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park (eventually demolished for a freeway), across the street from Harry Snyder’s childhood home. Southern California in the 1940s was a hotbed for fast food innovation, producing McDonalds and Carl’s Jr. around the same time, but Harry was the first to recognize the potential of a restaurant that allowed drivers to make orders over a two-way intercom system, creating the first Drive-thru experience as we know it today.

Combined with the Snyders’ simple goal of giving customers “the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy” while providing “friendly service in a sparkling clean environment”, their humble burger experiment gained traction — resulting in the opening of the second In-N-Out two years later. Though the Snyders clearly had a success on their hands, the potential for explosive growth of the chain was tempered by the couple’s focus on strict quality control — over both the restaurant experience, and of course the food. Subsequently, only 18 restaurants were opened over the next 28 years before Harry Synder passed away in 1976 from lung cancer.

Harry’s son Rich had worked in the restaurants all of his life and assumed the role of company president at the young age of 24 following his father’s passing. During his tenure, the chain experienced unprecedented growth, opening over 90 restaurants through the 80s and 90s. But while business was booming, In-N-Out still remained firmly grounded in southern California, and against the franchising model. Rich believed that outsourcing the brand purely for accelerated growth was tantamount to “prostituting his parents”. “There is money to be made by doing those things” he said, “but you lose something, and I don’t want to lose what I was raised with all my life”.

His resolution to maintain the simple menu devised by his parents was equally strong, which he made clear to Forbes in 1989, saying “it’s hard enough to sell burgers, fries and drinks right. And when you start adding things, it gets worse”. A lemon-lime soda would be the only exception during his tenure as president.

The truth is that new foods were being developed and served at the restaurants — they just never made it to the official menu. The “Animal” method of preparing a burger originally developed by word-of-mouth in southern California, and described a “mustard grilled” double-double burger covered with grilled onions and extra In-N-Out special sauce. Today the term is now trademarked by In-N-Out, and it’s a common style requested when ordering fries or burgers — though what “Animal Style” implies on each of these two items is actually different. But it’s still not on the menu. In fact, there’s an entire “secret menu” well-known by regular patrons (it’s also widely available on the company’s website) that includes a whole host of special items and preparation methods.

These not-so-secret quirks, as well as the family’s insistence on making food to order with fresh ingredients, immediately endeared the restaurant to customers, despite putting the chain at a disadvantage to other burger joints by creating longer wait times for food. Soon the problem transcended from testing the patience of patrons to limiting the expansion of new restaurants. Long waits at certain locations began creating traffic jams, which in turn caused city governments to stall on future In-N-Out building permits. As a result, new stores included indoor and outdoor seating to relieve the previously drive-thru-only restaurant’s impact on the surrounding road infrastructure.

Issues like these were, of course, the right kind of problems to have as a small business owner, but amazingly, it was only in 1992 that the first restaurant appeared outside of the nest of Southern California, under the bright lights of Las Vegas. Soon the chain would finally expand to the other corners of California, but Rich failed to see the next evolution in his family’s business. He died in 1993 at the age of 41 in a private plane crash while attempting to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange Country, California, along with Philip R. West, In-N-Out Burger’s chief operating officer and executive vice-president. Rumor has it that Rich and Philip West had a standing personal agreement never to fly on the same plane, but they had broken the policy for this flight.

The circumstances of the crash and FAA investigation eventually led to a mandatory increase in the distance between smaller planes following bigger planes; the turbulence created by a Boeing 757 ahead of Rich’s plane was the cause of the tragedy. After the accident, Rich’s brother Guy Snyder assumed the helm through the rest of the ’90s, expanding the company’s reach to over 140 locations. In 1999, Guy died suddenly from an overdose of painkillers — returning the responsibility of the now booming chain back to it’s co-founder and matriarch, Esther Snyder.

While competing chains like McDonalds and other rivals exploded to thousands of locations, Esther continued to moderate the pace of In-N-Out’s expansion. In 2000, the chain finally crossed the California line into Arizona. The Snyder family’s influence over the company finally waned with Esther’s death in 2006 at the age of 86. The job of President then passed to Mark Taylor, former vice president of operations and a close family friend. A year later in 2007, an opening in Tucson broke company records for most burgers sold in a day and week. The crowd was so large news helicopters circled overhead to film the spectacle.

The chain expanded to Utah in 2008 and then later to Texas in 2010. Around the same time, Guy’s only daughter and the only grandchild to Harry & Esther, Lynsi Martinez, replaced Taylor as president of the company — restoring the family bloodline at the top of the org chart. She was only 23 years old at her grandmother’s death, and was set to gain control of her father’s shares of the company in stages over 12 years. Like most private companies, much is unknown about In-N-Out’s financial status, but the chain is widely known as one of the few fast food chains to pay employees well above the minimum wages thresholds dictated by the state and federal government. Restaurants & Institutions estimated the company generated $260 million in sales in 2002. We can only guess how much that number has skyrocketed over the last decade.

In many ways, In-N-Out’s rise is a text book example of the American dream fulfilled. Yet the Snyders’ insistence on never sacrificing quality for the sake of accelerated growth still lies in stark contrast to the entrepreneurial culture of today, hypnotized by 5X multipliers, viral cultural adoption and the sprint to IPO. Selling hamburgers may be as red, white and blue of a business model as they come, but turning down the quick buck is an entirely different story. Perhaps this is why in the midst of a booming health and slow food movement, In-N-Out drive-thrus remain a favorite among world-renowned chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and countless other celebrities. Or while chain’s like Chic-fil-la choke on the stigma of their founder’s ultra conservative view, the Synder family continues to promote their devote beliefs via discrete Bible verses printed on their paper containers, causing few, if any, ruffled feathers. Maybe making a great hamburger just absolves all sins. All we know is that the Synders’ gift to this earth can’t spread East fast enough.