Across America and much of the world, the name In-N-Out stands as hallowed reference to excellence in burger production.
In-N-Out started in California more than 60 years ago, and its 268 venues are crammed into just five states in the West and South of America. So, living on the West Coast now means living within access of its goods, which is a good thing.
I need to put this out there though: after some consideration, In-N-Out is disqualified from consideration in my quest to find the great American meal. There is something almost un-American about how good In-N-Out is, because it has a respect for simplicity and an efficiency that is hard to find anywhere else in this country.
The first In-N-Out and the first McDonald's were separated by only eight years and 60 or so kilometres. In-N-Out's logo, a golden arrow zagging right, is a minimalist version of McDonald's golden arch.
McDonald's had only a small historical head start, but today it operates more than 13,000 restaurants in America. If you were to take this at a per-state average, it is five times more visible than In-N-Out in the states where the two stores co-exist. But given that two of the states the two chains share are California and Texas, which make up about a fifth of America's population, I'd say this is a very low estimate.
In-N-Out was a small and family-owned operation until the mid-1960s and it has since famously eschewed aggressive corporate expansion, so as to not risk the quality of its burger produce. It is a strategy that it has never relented on.
The result is this: a couple of Fridays ago LP and I are driving to San Francisco. We know we are going to come past an In-N-Out and we've agreed that a dinner stop will be in order. We arrive, and the sight of the restaurant feels exciting. We step inside, and even though we're about to eat fast food, I feel anticipation rather than preemptive self-justification and self-loathing.
I'm always pleased to see an In-N-Out. McDonald's, though, and all of the eateries that have followed in its globalised wake, can never elicit such a fondness because they have forced their hands in search of the buck. I'm sick of the sight of a McDonald's before I've even stepped inside to order.
In-N-Out is rarely advertised, but I respect the brand. And it relies on this word of mouth in place of advertising.
I'm constantly affronted by advertising for other fast food chains that are straining to foster that same emotional connection.
So In-N-Out first disavows the accepted standard of its competitors to carpet-bomb the market to gain customers by default. But it goes one step past this, and removes 80 per cent of the choice you'd find at most other eateries.
More American restaurants than not offer up chapter-long menus to provide for any possible customer whim. In-N-Out offers only a hamburger, a cheeseburger, and a double-cheeseburger, fries and milkshakes. It is its second move of supreme confidence, and it is another rare occurrence in America. Do one thing, very well.
A neon sign hangs over the counter in all In-N-Out restaurants: "Quality you can Taste." Even its bravado is a little matter of fact. It is one of the only fast food chains that pay its staff above minimum wage. The staff, dressed simply in white shirts and paper hats, don't appear to have a 14-year old or ex-con among them.
So the other week, as I do always, I opt for the double-cheeseburger, branded the "double-double". It comes quickly and it is delicious. It won't change the world, but it tastes good.
The bun is its own thing. It is not artisan or bakery fresh, but it is bread, and not some sugary, soft substitute. Real cheese is melted over two hamburger patties that taste as though they came from a cow and not a laboratory. The fries are thick and potatoey, and maybe they're lacking the extreme hit of salt and grease for the seasoned fast-food palate, but I've come to love them.
In-N-Out makes a well-priced, well-made and delicious burger. It doesn't overexpose itself. It doesn't diversify needlessly. It doesn't even advertise. It just makes a good burger in a location you're never too over-familiar with.
But there's another "oh-snap-they-do-what?" surprise in store, which again separates In-N-Out from its American contemporaries and the pervasive style of doing business in this country in general.
At each store there's an extensive secret-menu that all of its staff are trained to execute.
In-N-Out actively endorses and promotes a fan boy culture. The secret menu is openly listed on its corporate website - mostly amounting to endless derivations on its burgers, fries and shakes - but among burger connoisseurs is talked about with reverence. No one really seems to know exactly where it begins and ends, even though a copy of it is easily sourced on the Internet.
You want your double cheeseburger to come wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun? No problem. A neopolitan milkshake? No issue. A grilled cheese sandwich? Bring it on.
The secret menu is another matter of In-N-Out not trying to be broadly accessible and visible to every imaginable person out there. It doesn't over-explain. It is oddly un-needy.
More than anywhere else in America, and standing alongside all too few examples, In-N-Out is a big company that wants more to be good (and still financially very comfortable) instead of just really, really, really rich. And it succeeds too.
It may only be a cheeseburger, but that is a rare and beautiful thing, no?
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