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.
This strikes me as heresy. Esther Snyder opened the first In-N-Out stand in 1948 with her husband Harry. Harry Snyder died in 1976, and their son Richard took over. In 1993 Richard died, and his brother Guy took the reins. In 1999 Guy died, leaving Esther, already an octogenarian and entitled to shake her fist at the sky alongside Job, in control of the company. Without compromising the high standards of quality that had been in place since day one, the business expanded under her watch. She remains company president to this day. But in the eyes of Martinez and company, the lawsuit alleges, grandma is an impediment to significant growth. Snyder's response: They "only want me dead," she has been quoted as saying. (The company has since sued Boyd, alleging fraud and embezzlement. Boyd's attorney called the allegations "totally baseless and demonstrably untrue.")
The whole thing seems sordid, ugly and, worst of all, familiar. It stinks of a monopolizing American greed that won't be satisfied with local success; it must be national, it must be global, it must be viral. Remember King Midas? Everything he touched turned to golden arches.
So In-N-Out now stands at a crossroads. Today as I wait in line at the drive-thru, I wonder which way that giant arrow will point. Will the course of empire take it eastward, bringing Double-Doubles to Denver, Des Moines and Da Bronx? Apart from making those of us in the West feel a little less special, that wouldn't be such a bad thing, unless in the Starbucksification of In-N-Out Burger, something gets lost. If the old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough goes, then so goeth I. If celebrity hotties on TV begin dribbling special sauce down their chins, then none will dribble down mine. I don't think I'm alone in this.
There are few titans of integrity in this country standing firm against the corruptions of capital. In-N-Out, for the time being, is one of them. Faithless friends, there is still reason to believe. For that, I raise my milkshake to Esther and submit the following:
SONG OF SOLOMON 2:15
Go ahead, look it up.