Business Lessons at In-N-Out Burger

My wife, Angela, and my daughter, Hannah, and I recently took a trip to southern California.  My wife was celebrating a class reunion and also visited the University where she begins her doctoral work.  One of my joys in going to southern California is to experience multiple times stops at the restaurant In-N-Out Burger. 

I am a burger connoisseur and believe that a restaurant is worth its weight in salt if it can consistently produce on an excellent burger.  Few fast food chains cut the mustard on this task.  But In-N-Out is quite different.  The chain was started in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder in southern California.  Today, their granddaughter, Lynsi, leads over 300 restaurants that are located in California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, and Texas.  Lynsi was once the youngest woman billionaire in the US. 

We always welcomed the opportunity to visit In-N-Out.  Their menu is simple but offers gluten free options which we always look for as a family.  In one of our several visits to their restaurants, I had some time to reflect and observe why this chain is so successful.  We stopped at one of their locations in San Diego a little after 11 AM, which is prime lunch rush time for an In-N-Out.  All tables inside and outside were filled and after our order, we found three seats on barstools at a counter that looked directly into the kitchen area.  We waited in line to get our food, which is typical of an In-N-Out.  I have not gone to one at any time of the day where I did not wait in line.  So why was is this restaurant so successful?

They know their identity and focus on that.  The In-N-Out menu is very simple:  burgers, shakes, fries, cold drinks.  Their mission is to “give customers the freshest, highest quality foods possible and provide friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.”  They have resisted the temptation to expand their menu over the years.  Also, all their ingredients are fresh from their beef and fresh vegetables, to the potatoes they wash and cut on site for their fries.  Also, I always see at least a couple employees who are cleaning counters, floors, the outside areas, every time I have walked into a store.  Their passion for cleanliness is hospital like as you see the light glisten off their steel counter.

They treat customers special.  One of my sons worked in fast food this summer and he equated their attitude toward customers as a cattle herder.  Just get them in and out as quick as you can.  This is not the case for In-N-Out.  The iconic arrow was an indication that “quality is served here”.  Customers are referred to as “guests”.  The attitude is similar to southern hospitality that I grew up with. 

They engage their insanely loyal guests.  Their Facebook page boasts nearly 3 million likes and usually responds to messages within a few hours.  They sell all sorts of In-N-Out logo merchandise at stores and on their website.  In-N-Out fans also can order with the secret menu and ask for items like a double-double (double cheeseburger), protein style (lettuce wrap burger), animal style (add grilled onions and In-N-Out secret sauce), or the Flying Dutchman (double cheeseburger with no contaminants).  In-N-Out is also one of the few burger places that I don’t mind having 10 other people in front of me in line.

They treat their team well.  My wife, who grew up in southern California, said that In-N-Out was the toughest fast food job you could get but also the most rewarding.  One restaurant we stopped at had a help wanted sign that touted their starting pay of several dollars above minimum, 401k plan, beginning with 2 weeks of paid vacation, and free meals.  These are all items not seen in other chains.  They also have their own management training school called In-N-Out University.  Several of their top level executives began their career behind the counter.  Managers average 14 years with the company and part-time employees stay over 2 years. 

Their team executes on the mission.  I paid attention to the time we were at the store.  We were there a total of 25 minutes and in that time, the store served 50 guests inside the store, not to mention those who were passing through the drive through.  That is a rate of a guest served in less than 30 seconds.  The kitchen area, which can be viewed by the public, had 14 different workers throughout the time we were there.  The work area is also logistically laid out where the team members do not bump into each other. 

They are a proficient user of technology.  Many In-N-Out locations have team members carrying around wireless handheld computers to take your order.  This is similar to what you experience when you enter an Apple Store.  This provides a personal service at the drive through and also gets you your order quicker. 

They provide great value for the price.  We had supper one evening at SmashBurger, which was the burger joint closest to our hotel.  We all were disappointed as we paid twice the amount than what we paid at In-N-Out and enjoyed the food half as much.  Getting a great price on fresh ingredients for a burger is definitely worth the wait in line!