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Double-Double trouble

January 18, 2006

THE DOUBLE-DOUBLE: Mere mention of it, for a devotee of In-N-Out Burger, can water the mouth and spur the feet toward the nearest available restaurant with that trademark yellow arrow. In-N-Out devotees are many, and if they seem fanatical at times, well, they have their reasons.

It's not just the menu -- reliably simple in an age of multiple choice. It's not the insistence on fresh ingredients, or the ban on freezers and microwaves. It's not that the company, still family owned, pays its employees well and engenders long-term loyalty. It's not even the storied history of In-N-Out, which invented the drive-through and two-way speaker box in 1948, when competitors still had carhops serving customers in a parked car.

The main reason for In-N-Out mania is quality, uncommon at fast-food joints. Anyone who has tried an In-N-Out burger or fries knows what we are talking about. Take, for example, Andrew Ramirez of East Los Angeles, an Army sergeant who was held captive for 32 days in Serbia in 1999. Upon his release, he proclaimed that he craved a Double-Double; his mother dutifully carried two of them, with fries, to his base in Germany.

So it is with considerable concern that we take note of the power struggle roiling In-N-Out's leadership. It's a private company, which means that its executives have a legal right to wreck or improve its operations as they wish. Yet In-N-Out is also a kind of state treasure, akin to Half Dome or the governor's accent, and it's one worth preserving.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, one of In-N-Out's board members, Richard Boyd, alleged that the young heir to the company is trying to oust him in order to accelerate her control and speed an expansion that will destroy the quality of its victuals. In a countersuit, In-N-Out executives accuse Boyd of gouging the company and using its contractors to work on his home.

The lawsuits may be tactical moves in negotiating Boyd's departure, but they risk damaging a fragile company. Esther Snyder, who founded In-N-Out with her husband, Harry, is 86 and in the process of transferring control to her granddaughter, Lynsi Martinez, who is 23. (Two Snyder sons died unexpectedly in the 1990s.)

Martinez plans to expand In-N-Out beyond its 202 outlets, almost all of them in California (it has a handful in Nevada and Arizona). That's all swell, if it spreads that In-N-Out quality farther afield. But not if it ruins a good thing. We'll be testing that quality -- every chance we get.

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