Employees stay longer because they are paid well. Part-time servers and counter help start at $8 an hour--well above the federal minimum wage of $5.15 and more than is commonly paid by other fast-food or retail establishments. And In-N-Out's pay scale is the same all across the chain. When it opened its newest restaurant this year in Lake Havasu, its relatively high pay rate created quite a stir among employers in that Arizona retirement community. Workers and retailers there had long been accustomed to minimum wages.
Haley, who manages the In-N-Out near Los Angeles International Airport, remembers her parents' disappointment when she told them she was going to quit college to pursue a career at the restaurant. Soon, she says, "my parents started to see the opportunities the company provided and the financial stability. They could see that I was treated very well."
From the beginning, Harry and Esther Snyder have paid at least a little more than minimum wage. The first restaurant, on Francisquito Avenue in Baldwin Park, was barely 250 square feet. There were no seats, no carhops, as was common in those days. Instead, the Snyders attached a speaker box and launched what many believe was California's first drive-thru hamburger place.
The Snyders sold 47 burgers that first night, and it wasn't long before they began sharing their profits with workers.
Rhoda Winter, 70, who worked at Bank of America's Baldwin Park branch in the early 1960s, remembered Harry Snyder. She recalled how every Christmas he would give her a list of savings bonds to type up: $100 bonds for managers and $25 bonds for their spouses and children; and $25 bonds for all other employees.
"He was very generous," Winter said.
Harry Snyder, who grew up in Santa Monica, met Esther after World War II. He had served in the Army and she was a nurse working for the Navy in San Diego. Esther said Harry never went to college but knew what it took to run a business. "Harry always felt that if you paid them well, they would work well and would want to stay," she said. "And it was true."
The Snyders expanded slowly at first. But as they grew, the $10 employee bonuses of the early '50s grew too. This year, 50 managers and their spouses will be treated to a 10-day trip to Sydney, Australia. Such perks are rare in the fast-food industry. But the Snyders didn't operate like the others. For decades, they spurned just about every tenet that the industry holds dear.
In-N-Out's advertising and marketing efforts are minuscule. The company prefers radio spots and bumper stickers to splashy television commercials.
Its basic menu of burgers, fries, shakes and sodas hasn't changed.
And for customers in the drive-thru lines, the wait can often stretch to 10 or 15 minutes. In-N-Out doesn't seem as obsessed with super-speedy service as bigger chains.
But the customers keep coming back. In-N-Out consistently scores high in independent customer studies. It ranked at the top among 70 chains in a recent nationwide survey of 87,600 fast-food customers by Sandelman & Associates, a retail specialty firm.
The chain's appeal spans generations, from teenagers and their parents to the likes of Bessy Austin, who says she's been visiting In-N-Out for four decades. And at the age of 105, Austin still comes in for a cheeseburger and chocolate shake in Costa Mesa after her monthly doctor's visit. "I eat what I want," she says.
Devoted followers have even posted unofficial Web sites where fans list off-the-menu items: "Animal style" (burger fried in mustard) and "flying Dutchman" (two meat patties and two slices of cheese--nothing more).
Remember Andrew Ramirez, the U.S. Army sergeant who was held captive for 32 days last year by Serbian forces in Yugoslavia? After his release, his mother, Baldwin Park resident Vivian Ramirez, went to visit her son in Germany and took along his favorite food--two Double-Double burgers from In-N-Out.
"Everyone in the fast-food industry envies In-N-Out," said Carl Karcher, 83-year-old founder of the Carl's Jr. restaurant chain. "We're working on new products every year and In-N-Out keeps the same menu and knocks 'em dead."
"It's a great business," said Hiatt, the restaurant consultant.
As for the future, it is now a "gigantic step more complex" than it was just a few years ago, Hiatt said. "I would expect that, before too long, just like all private companies that go through generations, some of the investors or family members are going to want some kind of liquidity."
Karcher also wonders about In-N-Out's future. A longtime acquaintance of the Snyders, Karcher knows about Esther's indomitable spirit. But, "Esther is very, very tired. She's really had her ups and downs," he said.
Harry's death 24 years ago, at the age of 63, devastated Snyder. But when her younger son died in a plane crash at just 41, Snyder said, "my world had almost ended."