The In-N-Out Burger locations in Texas are the only ones in the country with an average sub-four-star Yelp rating. It is, without a doubt, one of the most impressively passive-aggressive consumer protests in history.
In-N-Out Burger is a family restaurant that prints Bible verses on the inside of their cups. They toast their fries in sustainable vegetable oil, pay their staffers a generous $11-per-hour entry-level wage, and carry none of the publicly traded, hipster goofiness of Shake Shack. That volunteer spirit and quiet confidence should be perfect for the Lone Star State soul.
But alas, In-N-Out Burger is not Texan, and even worse, the corporate headquarters is nestled in the ninth floor of a faceless Irvine office building. Herein lies the problem.
Nobody has an official ancestral claim to the hamburger. It is not mythic. The hamburger does not annotate the history of a city, at least not in the way pizza tells the story of New York. So, as a Californian living in Texas, the uniform and often zealous rebuffing of In-N-Out as a brand took me by genuine surprise. Other foreign institutions were gratefully enveloped in Austin's embrace: the Memphis institution Gus' Fried Chicken and Chicago deep-dish fixture Gino's East both proudly sit downtown.
But there was something about In-N-Out—hyped, Californian, sitting in direct opposition of the time-honored Texan classic Whataburger—that brought out the knives.
"Whataburger is undeniably, categorically Texan. Walter Cronkite did the voiceovers for years, and Texans feel a kind of allegiance to Whataburger because it doesn't really exist many other places. Now that I live on a coast, I crave it," says Kelsey McKinney, a freelance writer who loves meat in the same way you and I might love a beloved pet dog. "So, I think the arrival of In-N-Out poised a dual threat. Not only was In-N-Out coming into a market Texans were generally satisfied with, but it also represented this kind of coastal elitism that always bothers Texans."
I was born in San Diego, and growing up, In-N-Out was a bi-weekly treat for me and my well-behaved brother and sister. Its drive-thru sells $1.95 hamburgers and $2.25 cheeseburgers. It has always felt wholesome; authentic, even. Maybe a little pious, but never elitist. I reached out to In-N-Out's corporate office for comment on this story, and unsurprisingly, they bristled at the idea of comparing themselves to another brand. Frankly, I got the sense that they just didn't want to start shit. Their only priority is selling hamburgers.
Whataburger shares the same egalitarianism; three bucks for a sandwich with a bigger patty and (in my opinion) a not-quite-as-satisfying crunch. They are both good. But if there's one thing Texans excel at, it's nitpicking the specifics of what makes something Texan.
"The default burger in Texas is big and it's tart. We like them meaty, with dill pickles and French's mustard. If you don't wince when you bite into it, you feel a little cheated. Whataburger delivers on both of these ideals," says Pat Sharpe, food editor at Texas Monthly. "Texans are dubious about In-N-Out for many reasons—the hysterical over-hyping, the lines, the fact that it's from California—but the first time I ate one, I just thought, 'There's no there there.'"
We can debate the pros and cons of yellow mustard all day, but this was never a feud about taste, or value, or why it's fucked up that Whataburger doesn't serve breakfast all day. Texas is home to five of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Georgetown and New Braunfels—two areas orbiting the booming metropolitan hearts of Austin and San Antonio—lead the pack. Major companies are fostering new homes in the state for the cheap cost of living and the lack of income tax. In the past few years giants like Condé Nast and Charles Schwab opened up shop in Austin.
These are the same reasons why In-N-Out Burger saw the state as the first place to expand outside of the West Coast. All of this development is all great for the local economy, but it's also slowly changing the definition of being Texan. McKinney loves and fears for Texas, so something as innocuous as a rival burger shop can be taken as an omen.
"Texas, as a space, has a lot of pride. To an outsider, and especially to someone from a coast, that pride doesn't really seem like it's based in anything. Texas doesn't have the best schools, the richest population, the highest education quotient. But Texans are brought up with two years of state-mandated Texas history and a pledge to a state flag. They like where they're from, and almost especially when no one else does." she says. "It's not just Californians Texans are threatened by; it's everyone trying to come and ruin this space they believe is already good. But I do think in this decade in particular, Californians have been a threat to Texas. Many companies are moving headquarters to Texas, and suddenly the state is flooded with outsiders."
Frankly, I think staging a proxy war over a fast-food chain makes all the sense in the world. There will be no government measures to protect Texan identity, especially when the eroders are young and white. Instead, we stake our claim on a hamburger. They may close down Emo's and bulldoze pinata shops, but they will pry my Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit from my cold dead hands.
It makes me sad as a Californian. I honestly believe that In-N-Out Burger and Texas are kindred spirits. But alas, it is not Texan. And that matters more now than it ever has before.
"Ultimately, I think, like we're starting to realize about a lot of sectors of America, Texans feel like they've been left behind in a way. That people on the coasts think they are better than them, and assume a lot of things about them without really listening," finishes McKinney. "It's kind of silly and absurd to apply all of this to the arrival of In-N-Out in Texas, but Texans have applied their pride to a lot stupider things throughout the years."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2017.