In-N-Out Burger

In N Out
Image by pescatello via Flickr

Just finished reading the book In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perlman about the creation of the iconic burger joint. The book has some great stories about the original founders. The husband/wife team Ester and Harry Snyder worked tirelessly and with lots of integrity to create a burger joint focused on “doing one thing an doing it better than anyone else”

The book begins when they founded the company in 1950 and the depiction of that time in LA was really interesting to learn about. The automobile was just coming on the scene and fast food restaurants were just starting. LA was a hotbed for them. In-N-Out, McDonald’s, Carls Jr, Taco Bell an others all started around the same time in the LA area. Los Angeles at that time was the Silicon Valley of fast food in the 50’s  There was a hype and boom around it and it was making many food entrepreneurs millionaires.

From the beginning In-N-Out wanted to be a place that was family owned and run. Harry and Ester continually turned away offers to sell, expand quickly or even change the scope of the business. Whether it was stubbornness or not, staying small and focused was Harry’s belief and it helped shape a truly unique restaurant that has – relative to other burger joints – healthier, better tasting burgers and a friendlier and cleaner environment all at a low price.

The book is also very much a out the Synder family – the dad, mom, 2 brothers, and granddaughter. Over 60 years of operation each one of these family members eventually ran the entire company. Harry was the main entrepreneur who built the core. When he died, he gave it to his youngest son who was equally talented and capable and built it up to be most like what it is today.  When he died, the oldest son stepped in.  He struggled with drug use and 6 years after taking over died from drug complications. After that, Harry’s wife, Ester, at age 82 took over again until her granddaughter was able to assume control.

The beginning is a great tale of growth and success, the middle is an interesting story of politics and growing pains, and the end is sort of tragic as the youngest Snyder (Lyndsi) is far from the dynamic inspiration of Harry nor nearly as competent.

I happy to have read the book and learn about In-N-Out’s secret sauce. If Harry, Ester or his son rich were still running the show I would bend I’ve backwards to eat there. But knowing that the company is now in somewhat incompetent and undeserving hands makes me believe that it’s only a matter of time before they chain tries to overexpand, maximize profits and become more of the same rather that a unique place with a special culture. Sure hope that doesn’t happen too soon

Some interesting facts:

  • In the 1950’s car hops were all the craze. In 1949 Harry built a two-way speaker system that allowed people to order their burger on the way in and pick it up on their way out in a fast, streamlined process.  While Wendy’s claimed to have invented the drive-thru in 1973, In-N-Out used it right off the bat for over 20 years prior to that
  • The entire chain lived by Harry’s quote: “Keep it simple, do one thing and do it the best you can”
  • Harry felt he had to own the entire process on how to make beef patties and deliver to stores on daily basis.  What you won’t see in an In-N-Out are: freezers, infrared lights. or microwaves
  • There’s a secret menu: the term, “animal style” came from the 60’s when the surfing community ordered the burgers with special sause.  The other customers who wanted the sause started calling it “animal style” as they viewed the surfers as animals.  Protein style. Lots think it came with the atlkins craze. But it came in the 70’s when the founder (harry) started eating burgers without the bun to try to lose weight.
  • Harry always paid his employees way over minimum wage.  In 1950, min wage was 60 cents and he started everyone at $1
  • Harry and Ester didn’t want to expand to more stores but their employees wanted more shifts.  Harry finally agreed to expand if he could staff an entire store with current employees and pay for it all in cash
  • Every store opened is completely paid for – there is no debt
  • LA is the birth place of fast-food and burgers.  Right by Baldwin Park in San Bernardino Valley, McDonalds opened it’s first store in 1948.  Similarly, Carl’s Jr started in 1945 and Fatburger in 1952 in LA
  • Ray Kroc, who is credited for building the McDonald’s empire actually approached 4 other chains before the McDonald’s founders decided to sell exclusive franchise rights to him.   In-N-Out was one of the 4.  Harry declined almost immediately.  At that time, many people were getting quite rich by starting fast food chains and franchising them.  Harry felt lots of pressure to do the same.  You can imagine how every one in your industry is doing something one way and you feel like doing the completely opposite.  While he could have definitely made more money franchising, he has created a cult and beloved brand by doing the opposite.
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Do What You Want

There are a lot of times in the world where people tell me what to do. Things like, “I 0444_20innovaneed the deck by tonight.” or “Can you meet me on Sunday to talk about the deal?” Sometimes i like doing it and sometimes i don’t. Here’s what i do know though: I always like doing what i believe in and i always hate doing what i don’t think is right.

This is why i love stories about people who were told they were wrong and they persevered and proved their naysayers wrong. Three stories stick out in my head:

Steve Jobs got forced out of Apple because he had a crazy idea that hardware can be beautiful. Years later he came back to prove that he was right 20 years before.  Now he’s dominating the music industry, the largest shareholder of the largest media company (Disney) and revolutionizing the mobile technology industry

In-N-Out Burger was a fast-food joint just like all the others in the 50’s. Ray Kroc wanted to buy it and franchise it. That was the thing to do.  McDonald’s was doing it, so was Taco Bell and Wendy’s and everyone else. But Harry Synder (the founder) of In-N-Out told Ray to pound salt.  He had a different idea. Instead of “lower costs and increase sales” it was “do one thing and do it as well as you can.” That one thing was the In-N-Out burger.  He never sold. The Synder family has purchased every In-N-Out with cash.  He wanted to know every meat distributor by his first name. That’s why the #1 requested meal backstage at the Oscars is In-N-Out and why there’s over an hour wait at a place where burgers are $2.

toystory_woodyJohn Lasseter lost his job at Disney back in ‘86. He was fired by an old line animator who said there was no future in computer animation. Lasseter slept under his desk, and a decade later delivered Pixar’s first hit, “Toy Story”.  After story he and Pixar have gone for 10 for 10.  Nothing is a sure thing in media.  And John is 10 for 10.

All of these guys did it their way and the world is a better place because of it. We can only hope that we have the conviction and passion and talent of them in our own lives.

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