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Wherefore the Double-Double?

A family feud has left In-N-Out Burger, that iconic Western enterprise, at a crossroads. Will it still be ours if its bright yellow arrow points east?

February 12, 2006|Joe Christiano | Joe Christiano has written for the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine.

Long after I had forsaken fast food, I occasionally found myself sneaking past the farmers' markets, gourmet delis and organic gardens of my Berkeley home to a guilty pleasure--10 minutes up the freeway. There, amid a depressing stretch of big-box discount stores and assorted chain clusters, stood a place whose uniformity I didn't find sterile or soulless, whose quickly prepared food didn't leave me feeling toxic and poorly nourished, whose abundant presence throughout the Western landscape didn't inspire despair or shame or a longing for prelapsarian Contra Costa County. That place was In-N-Out Burger--as good a justification as any for the westward course of the empire.

Besides the consistently good food and aesthetically pleasing setup, In-N-Out Burger stood out from other brand-name establishments, but I wasn't sure why. After enjoying a particularly transcendent takeout order one evening, I went to my computer, wiped the Double-Double essence from my fingers and hit the Internet.

Within seconds I learned that the company had been family owned since its inception 58 years ago. Its business philosophy was to "give customers the freshest, highest quality foods" (unfrozen, additive-free beef, fries cooked in pure vegetable oil, buns built from "old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough") and "provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment." I discovered with shock that the company paid its employees $9 an hour to start (store manager salaries average slightly less than $100,000 per year) with full benefits, ample vacation and retirement packages.

They cared about quality. They cared about their employees. They cared about the well-being and satisfaction of their customers. All this with an unpretentious menu of burgers, fries and drinks--period--that didn't pander to trendy diets or novelty fare. No giveaways, no movie tie-ins, no commercials appealing to the repulsive boor that the Devil's Own is trying to make the American male standard. It now was obvious why In-N-Out locations, on any given day and hour, were always packed.

In-N-Out was now my not-guilty pleasure. And on each subsequent visit I enjoyed my repast, noting the genuine good spirits in evidence on both sides of the counter. Here was an American institution whose success was a direct result of its philosophical and ingrediential integrity, and everyone who followed the familiar directive of its giant yellow arrow and gathered in the gleam of its red-and-white interior could taste it. Like Coney Island, baseball or "Born to Run," In-N-Out Burger was high-grade popular culture with a democratic inclusiveness that reflected and amplified the grander institutions that defined us.

I was a believer. And like all believers, my faith was tested. During one of my visits, I discovered the Bible citations that the company stealthily prints on the edges of its burger wraps and bottom-rim interiors of its drink cups: NAHUM 1:7; PROVERBS 3:5; REVELATIONS 3:20. Implicit in my support for the separation of church and state is my support for the separation of church and burger; God doesn't belong in the Pledge of Allegiance any more than the Virgin Mary belongs on a slice of melted cheese, and if my glorious secular paradise was in truth a beard for Jesus, then it would be free-range turkey burgers from here on out. To inspire my renunciation of In-N-Out, I looked up one of the passages. It was not what I expected:

REVELATIONS 3:20--Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

This simple invitation to communion was so in keeping with the In-N-Out brand of welcome that I immediately laid down my ax. Private or public, I prefer my assembly places free of cant, but if one must proselytize, then concrete demonstration and playful, Easter egg-scatterings of Bible referents is the way to go. With a happy heart, I let In-N-Out slide. We have lived in harmony ever since.

But once again my faith is being tested.

In-N-Out co-trustee Richard Boyd recently filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that Lynsi Martinez, the 23-year-old sole heir to the family business, and other corporate executives are trying to accelerate her takeover of the company (which will not fully come into her possession for a dozen more years), install top management and quickly expand the reach of In-N-Out beyond its 202 locations in Arizona, California and Nevada--and possibly force out 86-year-old company matriarch Esther L. Snyder, her grandmother.

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