This is not a picture of In-N-Out. It's Caliburger, a fast-casual chain that's been franchised across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This week, it soft-launched its third domestic store in Pasadena, California, three miles away from its muse. Caliburger's two other US locations—in Seattle and Maryland—can claim the novelty of being the only In-N-Out-ish place around; the Pasadena franchise, however, shares turf with the iconic brand that inspired it.
Before I dive into this, however, let me confess my longstanding love for In-N-Out. Despite being an occasional vegan of Hindu origin, my loyalty to the Double-Double remains steadfast. How could something be so good, so cheap, and still not McDonald's? For this reason, I hold a soft spot for the fast food chain, one which I tried to intellectually harden on my way to meet Caliburger CEO John Miller.
Once I arrive, we walk through the Caliburger space as it's preparing to officially launch. In one corner is a multi-panel mobile gaming wall, where customers are encouraged to download an app to play with other in-store users. (Caliburger's target demo is a 19-year-old boy). Robotic ordering stations, where you can "speak" to an android-like machine that will take your order, are set to roll out by this August, Miller says.
Of course, I have to address the burger-shaped elephant in the room. I ask Miller how he responds to accusations that Caliburger is simply an In-N-Out copycat.
"We're a tech company that makes great food," he says. As we speak, I realize that what at first sounded like an evasion quickly proves to be his conviction. Miller does hold radically hi-tech visions—not just for his company, but the future of the food industry at large.
And yet Caliburger's origins can't be examined without mentioning In-N-Out's influence. As an LA native, Miller explains that he started Caliburger because he missed In-N-Out when he was working in Shanghai. Faced with eating at McDonald's or at high-end American restaurants instead, he saw a fast casual-shaped hole in Shanghai's food scene and decided to fill it. With a little engineering and a few ex-In-N-Out employees, Caliburger launched its first Shanghai store to the adoration of a Chinese upper-middle-class clientele in 2011. It offered "Double-Doubles" and "Animal Fries," and the restaurant featured a large screen that played looped videos of blonde women frolicking in the surf. Caliburger was exporting the American dream, and consumers ate it up, animal-style.
In-N-Out, of course, did not. The company responded with a lawsuit in 2012, which was settled out of court. Afterward, Caliburger changed "Animal Style" to "Cali Style" on its menu and renamed the proprietary "Double-Double" to "Cali Double." Otherwise, though, Caliburger's current visual identity still strongly evokes its doppelgänger.
Continuing to ride a wave of successful launches abroad (with 29 current locations and counting), Caliburger launched its first domestic store in Seattle in September 2015. (The closest In-N-Out is seven hours away in Medford, Oregon.) Its University of Washington-adjacent store is branded differently than its international stores, emphasizing tech-friendliness and downplaying the California dream.
Food-wise, there are a few key differences from In-N-Out. First of all, everyone knows that In-N-Out's fries are not exactly beloved by all. Caliburger's are thinner and often fresh-cut (with the exception of certain international outposts, due to sourcing logistics), but twice-fried. As a result, they're deliciously crispy on the outside. The Cali Style option (like Animal Style) is on point—ooey, gooey, and fork-worthy.
As for the burger, it's pretty good. The accompanying thousand island-style sauce is well spiced with paprika and turmeric, and arguably more sophisticated than In-N-Out's heavily sweet version. Caliburger's is lacking a bit in dynamism, however, which could be fixed with a touch more tartness. If I had to choose one burger to drive across town for, I'd still probably go with In-N-Out's, if only because of the price: A Calidouble is $4.99 before tax (at least at their Seattle location; as of this writing, the Pasadena menu is still in the works), compared to In-N-Out's double double at $3.60.
For you "I occasionally eat chicken" vegetarians out there, Caliburger has something that In-N-Out doesn't: grilled chicken burgers, in barbecue bacon and guacamole mayo versions. Both are tasty, though I still prefer the burger. For all these items, "Low Carb Style" (lettuce wraps) is possible.
Perhaps the highlight of Caliburger's Pasadena menu, however, are its boozy shakes—chocolate bourbon or vanilla bourbon, each made with a full shot. As someone who doesn't even like the taste of hard liquor, I was tempted to down both full-size versions during the course of the interview. The chocolate bourbon, flavor-wise, was seamless; I suspect bourbon purists would prefer vanilla. Both were excellent. I momentarily contemplated taking the unfinished shakes to go, but decided against it in the interest of appearing professional.
Are Caliburger's menu and price differences big enough to dissuade In-N-Out comparisons by customers? Probably not. Are the boozy shakes and mobile gaming enough to draw crowds from its muse up the street? Maybe. Caliburger sees other fast-casual chains, like Shake Shack and Habit Burger, as its main competition—not In-N-Out. "...The thing is about a premium burger, these things are all pretty similar," Miller explains. "It's really hard to really stand out in the crowd of burger chains in the US. That's why we've invested in the technology aspect, to be something really different."
And Caliburger is banking on this technology—not just mobile ordering and communal Minecraft games, but radical shifts in workflow—being its competitive advantage. "We're really thinking about how we can take this industry that really hasn't changed a whole lot over the years, and do something totally different... We have a vision for the restaurant of the 21st century that is fully automated."
What this will look like, according to Miller, involves machines—the kind you might see at packaging facilities, not Android-like at all—flipping beef patties, toasting buns, and assembling burgers. "Much more difficult things have been automated with robotics and machinery," he explains. "For Caliburger, it's a pretty simple menu, [with] just a few items: a burger, chicken sandwiches, and fries. So the possibility of making the process flow in the kitchen completely automatic with machines is not that hard to imagine...There's maybe one or two humans overseeing it, managing it, and maybe focused on interacting with customers, but everything from the POS to the kitchen is fully automated."
This is, admittedly, an ambitious vision, not the least for its perceived feasibility. Miller estimates it will be only a year before this is fully implemented. And yet, it's not unrealistic. The fast food industry (of which the fast-casual concept is a part), has held on to human labor in cooking positions while other industries have completely automated formerly person-dependent processes. And if efficiency is a primary goal—and in fast-casual chains, it certainly is—why not be as efficient as you can?
Still, amid the popularity of hand-scooped ice cream and hand-massaged kale, isn't there something sterile about a robot cooking food, I wonder?
"You know, it's an interesting thing," Miller responds. "A lot of the things we use are made from automated machines… It'll be interesting to see if people have an emotional connection to a human making their food when they don't have that emotional connection to other things." Miller also points out that hygiene and consistency—two areas where automation proves superior to human labor—may be enough to sway people to prefer machines.
So, is Caliburger the forerunner of a technological wave that will eventually wash over the fast food industry? Maybe. What is for sure, however, is that Caliburger isn't In-N-Out, at least not anymore. In-N-Out is the constant that hearkens back to a time we're nostalgic for, even if most of us weren't alive for it. Its adherence to simplicity engenders affection.
Caliburger, on the other hand, is the hand of innovation, creatively troubleshooting the future of food. Is there room for both to exist? I think so.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.