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Esther Snyder, 86; Co-Founded the In-N-Out Burger Chain

Special to The Times

Esther Snyder, who with her late husband Harry co-founded In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park in 1948 and popularized the drive-through window for the fast-food industry, has died. She was 86.

Snyder, who had succeeded her husband and two sons as head of the family business, died Friday, according to an announcement from the company. Neither the cause nor the place of death was announced.

“She was an inspiration for all the associates at In-N-Out and for all the people in the community whose lives she touched over the years,” Lynsi Martinez, her granddaughter and sole heir, said in a statement.

In-N-Out’s vice president of operations, Mark Taylor -- who will succeed Snyder as the firm’s president -- said in a statement that “Mrs. Snyder showed us all how to be a great leader and businessperson.

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“She expected hard work from associates, and in return she believed in rewarding them well and treating them as members of one family.”

In-N-Out Burger opened in the same era as McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box -- all Southern California burger stands that grew into regional or national chains. But unlike their competitors, the Snyders favored a slow-growth approach and loyalty to and from employees, and they were sticklers for customer satisfaction and personal control over their closely held family business.

As McDonald’s and other chains opened thousands of outlets around the world, In-N-Out stayed relatively small and even now numbers just 202 stores in three states: California, Nevada and Arizona. Although the company declined to reveal sales figures or much else about its operations or the lives of its founders, Restaurants & Institutions magazine estimated its 2002 sales at $260 million.

A native of Sorrento, Ill., Snyder was born Esther Lavelle Johnson, one of seven girls in a family of eight children. She attended Greenville College in Illinois, and during World War II she served in the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Navy, where her duties included surgical nursing. She left the military with the rank of pharmacist first class.

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After the war, she attended Seattle Pacific University, graduating with a degree in zoology. In 1947, while working as the day manager for the restaurant at Seattle’s Ft. Lawton, she met Harry Snyder, a caterer and World War II veteran who sold baked goods to the restaurant.

In 1948, the newly married Snyders moved to Southern California and opened their first In-N-Out stand in Baldwin Park, across the street from the house on Francisquito Avenue where Harry Snyder had grown up. Their sales and food service experience was minimal, but on their first night of business they sold 47 burgers, according the company’s website.

Post-World War II hamburger shops typically featured carhops serving customers in their vehicles, and McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. added walk-up windows.

But Harry Snyder had a different idea for his tiny shop, which had no seating and little parking space. Capitalizing on the emerging twin cultures of cars and fast food, he introduced a two-way speaker through which drivers could order food and then have it handed to them without leaving their vehicles.

Many credit the Snyders with introducing California’s first drive-through restaurant. At the very least, the Snyders made the innovation so popular and practical that other fast-food establishments soon followed their lead.

For more than half a century, the chain has stuck to its basic menu of cooked-to-order hamburgers made with 100% beef, hand-torn lettuce and slow-rising, freshly baked buns; French fries made from California-grown Kennebec potatoes, hand-cut and fried in cholesterol-free vegetable oil; and milkshakes made with real ice cream. There are no kids’ meals, no breakfast items, no chicken strips or nuggets, no salad bars and no franchises -- the restaurants are all owned by the company. And the stores are still open until 1 a.m. or later.

“Everything was going to be fresh,” Esther Snyder said in an interview in 2000. “Harry would go to where he bought the meat, and he’d watch them cut it up and be sure he got what he ordered. He would go around at night and check on stores.”

Devotees learned a lexicon to order items not on the menu, including “animal style,” a burger with pickles, grilled onions and a mustard-cooked patty with extra sauce; the “Flying Dutchman,” two meat patties and cheese and no bun; and the “four-by-four,” with four patties and four slices of cheese.

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Esther Snyder remembered the early days, when “we hoped every car that drove by would stop in.” She did everything from peeling onions and making hamburger patties to handling the bookkeeping.

And she had full faith in her husband’s vision: “Anything he decided to do usually turned out well because he would work quite hard. He was a person who, if you gave him a job and it was difficult, he would figure it out and not let go until he knew it well,” she said.

When Harry Snyder died of lung cancer in 1976 at the age of 63, the chain had only 18 outlets. Their younger son, Rich, was 24 when he took over, but Esther said he was prepared, having watched his father for years, learning every aspect of the business. Rich expanded the company to 93 outlets. A devout Christian like his mother, he selected the Bible references that are still printed on the chain’s drink cups.

In 1993, Rich Snyder and four others died in the crash of a company plane. He was 41.

“When Rich was killed ... my world had ended, almost,” Esther Snyder said. “I had never had to worry about anything as long as he was here. He was a happy soul.”

After his death, the company was run by the Snyders’ older son, Guy, during what was to be a brief tenure. On Dec. 4, 1999, at age 48, he died of an accidental overdose of the painkiller Vicodin.

Esther Snyder, already a fixture at the chain’s headquarters -- first in Baldwin Park and then Irvine, with titles that through the 1980s and ‘90s included vice president and secretary-treasurer -- took over as chairwoman and president. Her daily office routine lasted until she broke a hip at the opening of an In-N-Out Burger in Redding in 1999. But even after she began using a wheelchair or walker, the increasingly frail but determined matriarch remained involved in every company decision.

Fiercely protective of her family’s legacy and privacy, she kept In-N-Out an independently owned business despite overtures from conglomerates eager to cash in on the chain’s popularity and profitability.

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Eventually Guy Snyder’s daughter, Lynsi Martinez, stepped in to continue the family line, backed by Taylor, the husband of her half sister.

Like any family, the firm has had its internal squabbles.

In January, Richard Boyd, a vice president and longtime board member, alleged in a lawsuit that Martinez and Taylor were trying to overthrow Snyder and expand the business too quickly.

The suit reportedly was settled in May but, in keeping with the firm’s tradition of secrecy, the terms were not disclosed.

For more than 20 years, Esther Snyder was involved in child welfare issues. In 1984, she and Rich Snyder founded the Child Abuse Foundation, which later became the In-N-Out Burger Foundation, to provide assistance to children in need.

Contributions may be made to the In-N-Out Burger Foundation, 13502 Hamburger Lane, Baldwin Park, CA 91706.

Funeral services will be private.


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