If America loves anything besides guns and beer, it's regional fast food chains. Lines snake, crowds gather, and hysteria ensues with the opening of each new location. New York has Shake Shack; the South had Chick-Fil-A (at least, until it reared its ugly head of homophobia and alienated a sizable swath of its customer base). And the West has (controversial opinion to follow) what may be the greatest of them all: the seemingly infallible In-N-Out Burger.
Like a Willy Wonka factory of cheeseburger-scented dreams with a magic "spread" swimming pool, In-N-Out warrants a special trip from three towns over just to revel in its pristine, tiled confines and faceplant into a red plastic tray of its caloric glory. Maybe it's because their grilled onions create a divine flavor palate of delicately greasy joy atop your burger, or maybe it's because their not-so-secret menu makes everyone feel like a Cool Guy Joe when they sidle up and order their fries Animal-Style, but there's just something about In-N-Out.
Which is why it seemed like In-N-Out just had to be evil in at least one capacity. So many things in life prove too good to be true; any hopes that we've had for non-sketchy fast-food corporations in the past have been dashed by bigoted moguls, poor management, or widely-publicized food poisoning outbreaks. Surely there must be some counterpoint to its status as a beloved roadside burger haven for everyone from awkward multi-generational families to glassy-eyed stoners and vanfuls of touring hardcore bands.
I tried to think of every other fast-food place in America and all of the things that have been discovered to be terrible about them. But then I held In-N-Out up to the light.
In all fairness, In-N-Out is not good for you. A Double Double with the standard fixin's will set you back 670 calories (370 of which are from fat), which clocks in as slightly more devastating the ubiquitous Big Mac (only a paltry 550 calories) but decidedly less catastrophic than a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (750 calories). And compared to a 1,160-calorie Triple Whopper, it's practically a macrobiotic sprout wrap.
But there is an essential distinction between the quality of In-N-Out's food and the cuisine of its competitors: One of the reasons that In-N-Out locations are confined to only five states (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Texas) is because super-fresh ingredients are the foundation of its quality control and signature taste. There are no microwaves, heat lamps, or freezers to be found in any of their restaurants. The meat—house-ground patties of pure regionally sourced chuck—sizzled to perfection on the grill, the lettuce is shockingly crunchy, the tomatoes are juicy and sweet, and the buns are doughy, toasty, and heavenly to shove into your greedy maw. Even Eric Schlosser, author of the notorious exposé, Fast Food Nation, is into In-N-Out. "It isn't health food, but it's food with integrity," he told the New York Times in 2002. "It's the real deal."
For the past few years, it seems like fast food chains are trying to outdo each other in terms of comically nasty novelty foods—see KFC's Double Down and Taco Bell's Waffle Taco to see what I mean—but In-N-Out keeps it real by sticking to a super-abridged menu of no-frills items. From the in-store menu, your options consist solely of a burger, a cheeseburger, a double cheeseburger, fries, milkshakes, and/or soda. Factor in the secret menu, and you've got a few more tweaks. (May I recommend the grilled cheese with pickles and fried onions?) But in terms of objectively unnerving foods, they're on the mellow side. Some people don't care for their fries, since they actually taste like matchsticks of potato and not the admittedly delightful salt-and-oil wands that we've grown so fond of from years of chemically altering our taste buds.
I wondered if, maybe, they treat their workers badly. McDonald's workers are pissed. And rightfully so: When the company tried to show workers how to map out a personal budget last year, they accidentally demonstrated that their wages are essentially unlivable. Strikes and protests among fast-food workers have gained increasing visibility over the past few years, but In-N-Out is notorious for being good to its staff—the minimum starting wage there is $10.50, which is well above the legal requirement in most states. I wanted personal testimonials, so I got the scoop from two former employees. Moe, 23, worked at the In-N-Out in Oakland during high school. "It was super chill. I was in high school making 12 bucks an hour, always ballin' out. Everyone is super upbeat and the managers were very rad, considering they're essentially babysitting, like, 15 teenagers per shift," she recalls. "When we met our sales goal each year, they would shut down an entire theme park just for In-N-Out employees." She was, however, told that her hot pink hair had to go; minus one point for the alt kids. Dane, now 26, worked there for two years and "climbed the ranks" to a managerial position. "They're legit," he shrugs. "I can't think of anything negative to say about my experience of working there."
So then I wondered, maybe they're owned by evil-doers. Currently, In-N-Out Burger is owned by the youngest female billionaire in America, a thrice-married 32-year-old blonde named Lynsi Torres, whose grandparents, Harry and Esther Snyder, founded the chain in 1948. The company passed through the hands of several family members before a series of untimely deaths landed it square in her lap in 2010. Although she is notoriously elusive, she apparently loves drag racing (her third husband is a racecar driver), has no college degree, and wears Nirvana shirts. Seems like it could be worse, right? Despite these points of interest, she is also apparently very Christian—so much so that she requested to expedite her second divorce because she felt uncomfortable dating another guy until it was finalized. But is it a farce for public image purposes? In a 2011 sworn declaration, Lynsi said, "I am concerned if I were to start dating before judgment is entered in this matter, it would be detrimental to my public Christian image, which will undoubtedly damage In-N-Out's corporate image."
So maybe they're super religious in a creepy way. It's well-known that In-N-Out has a born-again Christian angle; there are even tiny references to Bible verses stamped on the bottom of their soda cups and the corners of their burger wrappers. But while Chick-Fil-A, Carl's Jr., and even Wendy's have all been outed for their opposition to LGBT and abortion rights, In-N-Out has kept mum on any of its stances towards social and political issues. A lookup of the proverb sneakily buried on the cheeseburger wrapper, Revelation 3:20, reveals that it says. "Behold: I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." As far as Bible verses go, that one admittedly seems pretty benign. Proverbs 3:5, found on the milkshake cup, is a little bit more ominous: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding." Thanks, but I'll take my own understanding.
If behind closed doors they turn out to be tongue-speaking Evangelical nutjobs, how much would it truly matter to consumers and employees? "The microscopic Bible verses they throw around on the fry boats and Coke cups are as far as they took it," Moe remembers. "It's not like the managers had to be inducted into a cult or some shit. I was never bothered by it because everyone pretended it wasn't there." So if "good Christians" like your sweet old auntie are really a thing, maybe it's possible that drag-racin' Lynsi and her brethren are of that ilk.
If neither patrons nor food critics, nor its own employees, seem capable of finding anything wrong with In-N-Out, it's either legitimately stellar or incredibly adept at hiding its malevolence, which is impressive in and of itself. Disappointing as it may be to some, In-N-Out Burger doesn't seem too good to be true. But too good to last? I'll be counting down to their first major scandal, Double Double in hand.