Tuesday, 01 March 2011
This is a guest post from Just A Guy Thing.
If you don't live in Arizona, California, Utah, or Nevada, you have probably still heard of In-N-Out Burger, but you don't have one within driving distance. The way people gush about the fast food chain's offerings probably lead you to believe that it's as much a cult as it is a fast-food outlet. So is it all hype, or are their burgers better than sex? Bad sex, anyway...
You Want What You Can't Have
Well, a big part of the lore is the exclusivity. It doesn't matter if they were selling cardboard sandwiches - if some people have it and you don't, those people are going to talk about how much you're missing out. Similarly, if you had one of their burger ten years ago on a family vacation to LA, you're probably going to romanticize the hell out of that meal, regardless of whether or not it was actually THAT good.
Grass is always greener..., forbidden fruit..., whatever you want to call it, it has an effect that will make people talk about it and pine for it, regardless of quality (to an extent). Same thing with Krispy Kreme. Their donuts are good, but the people that prattle on and on about them are jackasses. It's a donut. Of course it's good. It's not that much better than any other donut, so the brand and limited locations all make for an allure that makes their donut taste 39% (my gorilla math) better than any other donut.
So is In-N-Out better than all the other burgers? Slow down, Sancho. We'll get there. I'm not done with the ancillary reasons that this establishment is placed on a pedestal. The chain is privately owned, which people seem to love. For obvious reasons, consumers are weary of big corporate chains, especially when it comes to stuff they're putting in their body (hopefully through their mouth). So when a family-owned business gets on the radar, achieves wild success, then refuses to expand past a regional level, people are going to fawn all over them, talk about their integrity, then listen to profile pieces on NPR about how wonderful it is that these guys haven't sold out, whatever that means these days. People are so enamored with the family-owned aspect of this company that they are totally willing to disregard the little Christian touches that adorn the operation, like bible verses on the bottoms of the cups. It's funny to claim that people like this place so much that they are willing to tolerate Christianity, but it's true. That's a powerful, powerful endorsement.
Because the firm is not publicly-owned, the private owners have been able to ensure a corporate culture that allows for generous wages, good benefits, and strict operating standards, all of which make people feel good about eating there, whether they are aware of those things or not. Similarly, ownership has kept the menu small and reasonably-priced, which creates a nice little nostalgia thing without being too-themey about the whole affair. I mean, look at the menu. It really does, in content and appearance, look like it has been sitting there since 195-whenever.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD, GOOD SIR?
Fine. Let's talk about what really matters. The food is good. Probably not the glowing endorsement you're looking for, but it's the truth. My truth, anyway. All the food tastes fresh, which is a good thing for the burgers, and a bad thing for the fries. Sure, you can see the potatoes get shot down a little choppy-cannon-thing and turn into raw fries, which is charming, and doesn't make you feel like you're eating fast food, but they taste like plain fried potatoes. A little soggy with no real personality. I found out by eating at In-N-Out that I require my fries to be frozen and sandblasted with starch. And possibly laced with hormones. I'm not sure.
Again, the freshness of the burgers, the bread, vegetables, and seemingly even the processed American cheese isn't up for debate. They don't use freezers in any aspect of their operation, and you can taste it in their food, but the freshness doesn't allow for much character or flavor. You don't feel like you had a bacon-fat enema after eating their food (unless you happened to have a bacon-fat enema after eating their food), but the whole experience is pretty unremarkable, in my extraordinary opinion. And the shakes are served at room temperature, which is a pretty neat trick, considering they are made fresh.
The whole thing seems to be more experiential than most. And the way I can tell that is that if the food really matched the experience, than Californians would hold In-N-Out in as high regard as the tourists do. But I know very few locals who would say that In-N-Out is their favorite fast food chain. So do with that information what you will. Try it and feel free to scream at me if you think I'm wrong. Chances are I will be wearing an iPod so it won't matter.
For those who haven't had the chance to try In-N-Out's fare, hold steady. The franchise is on the verge of opening some branches in Texas, so it looks like they have eastward expansion on their mind. The word from Texas is that people are preparing for its arrival like the President is moving into the neighborhood. Not Obama, but you know, a president that would be popular in Texas. Let's say Sarah Palin.