How In-N-Out Became the Small Burger Chain With the Massive Following

Postwar California drive-thru is the best in the West

Most motorists blowing down Francisquito Avenue on the eastern edge of Los Angeles probably don’t even notice the 10-foot cement shack decorated in red-and-white candy stripe by the San Bernardino Freeway overpass. But to those in the know, this is holy ground: No. 13752 Francisquito is a precise replica of the original 1948 In-N-Out Burger.

Sign: Alfred Maskeroni; Tree: Pierre Leclerc Photography/Getty Images

Chances are, to those in the know, the mere mention of that fast-food icon quickened your pulse. Of course, the majority of Americans don’t live anywhere near the five Western states with an In-N-Out. And woe unto us.

Just ask Gerry Humphrey, who runs InNOutBurgerFan.com and declared the chain’s burgers to be “awesome.” When he worked out of state a few years back, Humphrey’s first stop after landing at LAX was In-N-Out for his usual order: a Double-Double No Tomato Animal Style (more on that below). “There’s definitely a cult following for In-N-Out,” added food-and-travel blogger Tom Bricker, whose adulatory post about the chain earlier this year ran to 25 pages. “Many people feel like they are part of something with In-N-Out,” he said. “It still feels like a mom-and-pop operation.” And that, he added, “is before you even get to the food.”

Oh yes, the food. If there’s a single reason In-N-Out is legendary out West, it’s because some believe it makes the best burgers in America. And while them’s fighting words for some fast-food aficionados, In-N-Out no doubt has the cred. It uses no freezers, heat lamps or microwaves. The company butchers its own beef, bakes its own buns and delivers produce from the farm. The prices are low, quality is high and promo items be damned: In-N-Out only does burgers, fries and shakes—and very well. “This is part of the ‘secret sauce’ that makes In-N-Out a great place,” Humphrey said.

In fact, the quality imperative is the reason there are so few In-N-Outs. Still in the hands of its founding family (which does not grant interviews), In-N-Out has not gone public, refuses to franchise and won’t build a restaurant further than a refrigerated semi truck can drive in one day from one of its three butcheries in California and Texas.

For the fortunate ones in that jurisdiction, a trip to In-N-Out doesn’t just mean lunch. It can also mean speaking a special dialect based on the Not So Secret Menu, which shortens order time and dispenses with needless verbiage. Example: “Gimme a 3×3 Animal Style” means a triple burger cooked in mustard and slathered with extra sauce and grilled onions. For true fans like Humphrey, it’s a second language. “In-N-Out,” he said, “gives me a good burger the way I like it.”

Burger: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Torres: Bob Johnson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.