On our last day of the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year in Las Vegas, we had spent about four hours packing up and getting ready to ship the products back to our warehouse outside of Montreal. We were tired, hungry and happy that another show was over. Since we had rented a 9 room house - a "villa", as it was described on its web site - we had been having a lot of our meals there. But we didn't have anything planned for dinner that evening. We didn't want to go to a restaurant and have to wait for a meal. I had been wanting to get back to an In-N-Out Burger joint for sometime. It turns out that there was one on Sahara Ave. on the way back to our rental house. We decided to go there and grab some burgers for dinner on the way home.
I've eaten at In-N-Out a handful of times in the past. There's a somewhat famous location near Los Angeles International Airport that I've been to which is the favorite first stop of many who just arrived in Los Angeles. I've been to the one on Maryland Parkway near the University of Nevada campus in Las Vegas. And I've also been to the world's busiest In-N-Out (or so I was told) located on Tropicana just off Interstate 15 in Las Vegas. But it had been a LONG time since my last visit to an In-N-Out, possibly as long as 9 or 10 years.
In-N-Out has achieved cult status with many people who crave the fresh burger patties (never frozen) and are familiar with the "secret menu" the restaurant has quietly promoted for years. Given that they're only located in the Southwestern part of the U.S. and have resisted branching out further, In-N-Out has maintained a somewhat mystical pull for thousands across the U.S.
The mystique of In-N-Out burger began in 1948 when the husband and wife team of Harry and Esther Snyder started their venture in the eastern Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park. The newlyweds knew next to nothing about the burgeoning fast food concept of restaurants that were beginning to spring up along the West Coast. Harry was an Army veteran who found work after World War II as a baked goods caterer. Esther had some restaurant experience working as a manager after graduating college with a zoology degree. It was at Esther's restaurant that Harry met Esther and they eventually married.
Harry found a small 10' X 10' building at the corner of Francisquito and Garvey streets in Baldwin Park (see map - but the original location was torn down when Interstate 10 was constructed in the 50's), literally across the street from Harry's boyhood home. Each day, he sought out the freshest meat and produce for his burgers. But Harry also came up with a new concept that allowed customers to place their orders from their cars and then pick up the food at a window. At nights after working in his little restaurant, Harry would tinker with a speaker system that had a small microphone built next to the speaker so that the customer in the car could have two-way communications to order food. After getting his prototype to work, Harry installed the system making In-N-Out one of the first drive-thru restaurants on the West Coast.
The first In-N-Out drive-thru in Baldwin Park, CA. Picture courtesy Gear Patrol.
Business boomed at In-N-Out, but the Snyders resisted the urge to grow quickly. By 1958 there were five locations in Southern California, each of them were looked after by Harry and Esther. They continued to use only the freshest ingredients for their burgers and Esther continued to hand-patty each burger that was sold by the restaurants. As the company grew even more, they had to go to an automated burger-patty facility to keep up with public demand.
Harry and Esther's two sons Harry, known as Guy, and Rich literally grew up in the business. Rich was thrust into leading the company after Harry died of lung cancer in 1976. When Harry passed away, there were only 18 In-N-Out locations in Southern California. Rich oversaw an expansion over the next 15 years that saw the chain grow to over 90 stores - all in the Southern California area. During this time the family maintained complete control over the quality of the food, never franchising or outsourcing its food, and they continued to make the burgers "to order" - never making them beforehand and putting them in a warming bin. (Because they continued to make their food to order, it caused traffic jams at some locations that rankled local officials.) It wasn't until 1992 that the Snyder family opened their first location outside of California over in Las Vegas.
In 1993, Rich and In-N-Out Chief Operating Officer Phil West were flying back to Southern California on a corporate jet after a trip to scout locations in central California. On final approach to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, the pilot lost control of the private airplane (turbulence from a Boeing 757 that landed just ahead of them caused the plane to become unstable in flight) and Snyder and West were killed along with three others when the plane crashed. Ironically, Esther Snyder had been on the plane earlier, but had been let off at a small airport east of L.A. before the crash occurred.
Guy Snyder became the president of In-N-Out after his brothers death. He oversaw even more growth for In-N-Out and established a small network of distribution centers that were no more than a one day drive from each location ensuring fresh meat and produce at each In-N-Out. In 1999, Guy Snyder died from an accidental overdose of pain killers and In-N-Out leadership reverted back to Esther Snyder with Guy's stepson-in-law Mark Taylor as the Chief Operating Officer.
In 2000, In-N-Out opened their first location in Arizona and ventured into Utah in 2008 and into Texas 2010. In 2006, Esther Snyder passed away at the age of 86 and her shares in the company were passed along to a trust fund for her only grandchild Lynsi Snyder, Guy's daughter. Lynsi was only 17 when her father passed away and she became the President of In-N-Out in 2010 with Mark Taylor - her stepbrother-in-law (he was married to Lynsi's older sister her mom had from a previous marriage) - continuing as the company's C.O.O. Lynsi Synder took ownership of 50% of the company when she turned 30 and will take sole ownership of In-N-Out when she turns 35 in May of 2017.
Pictured right - Lynsi Snyder. Picture courtesy Orange County Register.
Lynsi Snyder is well-known for keeping a very low profile and is somewhat media shy. It has been reported that Lynsi Snyder has been the subject of two kidnapping attempts - once when she was in high school and the other a few years later near the In-N-Out distribution facility in Baldwin Park, CA. She also hasn't been lucky in love - she has gone through three divorces since first marrying at the age of 18 and is currently on husband number 4. She has three children from marriages 2 and 3 to carry on the Snyder legacy. Bloomberg News reported that Lynsi Snyder's net worth passed the $1 billion dollar mark in 2013, the valuation of In-N-Out's privately-held stock. The other interesting aspect about Lynsi Snyder - she's a respected amateur NHRA drag racer, something that has been in her blood nearly all her life since her father first took her to drag races before she started grade school.
During our week in Las Vegas for CES, we had valet parked at The Mirage just across Las Vegas Blvd. from The Venetian where we had our display suites because it was easier than getting in and out of the mess caused by CES at The Venetian. Coming back to pick up one of our vehicles, I was talking with one of the valets at The Mirage and he was the one who told me that the In-N-Out at Tropicana and I-15 was the busiest of all the restaurants. "Oh, no," he cautioned us as we got the van. "You want to stay away from that place on a Friday night. The one up on Sahara will be easier to get in and out of."
The Sahara Ave. In-N-Out is located about a quarter mile west of I-15, just west of S. Rancho Drive. (see map) Before we stopped in, two of the guys in our company who travel California cautioned us on In-N-Out. "Yeah, In-N-Out is all right. But I think it's overrated," my colleague Matt told me. "I like Five Guys better."
My colleague Chris - who lives in the Phoenix area - concurred. "Yeah, I'd rather go to Five Guys, too," he said. "I like the fries better at Five Guys, too." Well, for those of us who either hadn't had In-N-Out before, or hadn't had it in a long time - like me - we were still going to give the place a try.
We decided to go inside and place our orders since we were in two vehicles. This location was similar to other In-N-Out's that I've been too - well lit and heavy on the white with red trim decor with a number of booths and tables throughout the place. They always seem to be cleaning at In-N-Out's, from what I remember.
The menu for In-N-Out is located on the board above the two cash registers. Orders are placed and you wait for your food to come up - everything is made to order at In-N-Out, just as it was when they first opened over 65 years ago. Most of my colleagues were ordering things like the Double-Double - a double flat grilled burger with slices of cheese on each patty - with lettuce, tomato and a housemade sauce that has been in the Snyder family since In-N-Out first opened.
But I knew the secret menu and I ordered up a 3X3 - a triple cheeseburger with cheese on each patty, basically a Double Double only with an extra patty. You can also specify grilled or a sliced raw onion for the 3X3. I got the raw onion slice on mine. In-N-Out is famous for their "Animal Style" burgers that are grilled with yellow mustard and a favorite of thousands since 1961. I've tried a burger "Animal Style" and I don't care for it as much as a regular grilled burger.
It was a five minute drive back to our "villa" and we were all ready to eat when we got there. Grabbing a wonderful Ballast Point Sculpin IPA beer from the fridge, we sat down at the large table like one big family to eat our burgers.
My 3X3 burger was in a paper wrapper and piled high with three beef patties all with melted cheese on top. The lettuce, tomato and onion were all fresh flavorful. The lettuce was especially crisp even for over 10 minutes after the burger was placed in the sack.
And the taste was.... Well, it was good. It wasn't what I quite remembered from previous visits to In-N-Out. I mean, I've had a number of other burgers in between the times I had In-N-Out burgers that this one was difficult to compare to previous In-N-Out burgers that I'd had years ago. Does that make sense? In any event, the burger was good, but not what I would say was earthshakingly good.
We just ordered a ton of fries and sort of shared them family style around the table. The French fries were crisp and light. In-N-Out fries are made from fresh potatoes cut in-house and fried in vegetable oil that is changed daily. They're actually very good when it comes to fries from a fast casual restaurant. But like most other fries, if they aren't eaten five minutes after they come out of the fryer they're pretty limp and soggy.
It's difficult to say who has the better burger between the fast casual burger chains that are out there around the U.S. If I had my choice between fast casual "made-to-order" burger places, I'd probably go to Five Guys first, Whataburger second and In-N-Out third. I'd also have to throw Smashburger in the mix, plus I've yet to try the new "up and comers" like Umami Burger and Shake Shack (which I'll be able to soon experience now that both are open in Chicago), and it's been a long, long time since I've had a Fatburger. But it's tough to beat In-N-Out's consistency, their tradition and the pull they've had on their customers for over 65 years. They simply make a very good burger.