In-N-Out Burger: No Buns about Good Business

Ashley McKee

March 9th, 2007

I first discovered In-N-Out Burger during a trip to Las Vegas last March. How I went so many years without knowing the joys of that place is beyond me. My friend brought me to the In-N-Out on Dean Martin Drive, and we waited a good 20 minutes in line just to get up to the cashier. That’s how crowded it was. Seeing so many other people waiting to get a burger really built up my anticipation. When was the last time you and 100 of your fellow cohorts waited that long at Burger King? The menu was straightforward: burgers, fries, shakes, and 3 combos. I took one bite of my burger and knew I had joined the ranks of the In-N-Out Evangelists.

So, what can we learn from In-N-Out Burger?

In-N-Out Burger does a great job of using preconceived notions to their advantage. They take a step beyond the expected and pleasantly surprise their customers. By offering fresh ingredients, outstanding quality control, and made-to-order food, In-N-Out exceeds the standards of the typical fast food joint. They don’t use microwaves or freezers, their fries are hand-cut and prepared on site, and the building is actually clean.

Going against the grain got In-N-Out Burger noticed. In their case, being the black sheep doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s interesting how In-N-Out offers a peculiar variety of drink choices. While they could have saved money by only offering Coca Cola or Pepsi products, they chose to offer customers Coke, Diet Coke, 7-Up, and Dr Pepper; the latter 2 produced by Cadbury Schweppes. In-N-Out strives to produce the best experience to customers even when it meant branching out to more than one beverage distributor.

Creating a sense of intrigue and exclusivity can do wonders with customers. A good story can often stimulate people’s interest and keep them coming back for more. Did you know In-N-Out has a secret menu? The customers that are aware of the secret menu feel like they are part of the in-crowd, and find great joy placing an order “animal style,” only to hear the folks around them inquire what that is. In-N-Out also doesn’t have any restaurants more than a day’s drive away from its main distribution center. While I’m assuming this is done for quality reasons, it also allows In-N-Out to remain exclusive to a certain area. Whenever I am in In-N-Out territory, I make it a point to go, as do many other people.

In-N-Out has also chosen to remain relatively small in comparison to other fast-food chains, which allows them to adapt quickly while holding steadfast to their tried and true values. I recommend to many of our clients to avoid striving for world domination, that way they can stay true to their loyal audience base. Just as Seth Godin points out in his new book, Small is the New Big, there is an advantage to being small. Small companies can do big things. In-N-Out is a family-owned chain that refuses to franchise. This allows them to foster an extremely close relationship with their associates and customers while staying true to tradition.

Finally, In-N-Out keeps their choices simple. Their menu is one of the simplest I’ve encountered. When I make my burger choice, there aren’t any complex decisions I have to make. Think about Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice. In a culture where we seem to have limitless choice, Barry argues that more choice doesn’t necessarily lead to greater satisfaction or superior alternatives. He believes more choice leads to psychological and emotional detriment. Either you want a burger or you don’t; no wasting time and effort choosing among 50 different menu items, frustrating yourself, wondering if you made the right decision. The menu is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Leave it to me to relate everything to food…

Burger and Fries
[Photo courtesy of Christine Perfetti]

6 Responses to “In-N-Out Burger: No Buns about Good Business”

  1. David Scott Lewis Says:

    In-N-Out Burger has always played off the wholesomeness of their dining experience, even going so far as to publish quotations from the New Testament on their packaging. Today, the quotations are limited, simply noting John 3:16 on the bottom of their drinking cups.

    Their initial marketing campaign was 100% in relatively religious areas, mostly in suburbs. And they’ve expanded from the suburbs to urban metro areas. It was (and continues to be) a brilliant strategy. Their “early adopters” and “lead users” were almost always devout Christians (albeit mostly Protestants, but also across the Left-Right spectrum from mainline denominations and historical peace churches to charismatics and evangelicals to Fundamentalists): They’ve spent very little on advertising and have relied on word-of-mouth, even from their earliest days.

    Another great example of where marketing-meets-usability, although perhaps not quite as obvious as with something like the forthcoming Apple iPhone.

  2. Zephyr Says:

    Would the experience have been even more pleasant if you’d been able to be up to the cashier in 1 minute? Same amount of customers, but better staffed? :)

  3. Ashley McKee Says:

    As long as I get my burger, I’m content with any wait time. I guess you can loosely compare it to the idea that a user’s perception of how fast a site is depends on whether or not the user accomplishes the task they set out to do on that site.

    I think there’s also something to be said for In-N-Out’s fewer highly-trained associates that feel like they are important to their organization and care about providing quality customer service.

  4. Jack Bailey Says:

    The staff at In-N-Out is one of the company’s strengths. The caliber of the people working there is astronomically higher than what you typically find at places like McDonald’s and BK. And the way they function as a team wows me every time I go there. When I stand in line to order and then wait for my food, I’m awed by the cooperation and coordination going on behind the counter. They function like a finely tuned machine. No slackers. And to top it all off, the eats are delicious! Love that place! If staffing up to operate faster means lowering the standards for hiring, no thanks. I’ll happily wait.

  5. Moe Rubenzahl Says:

    > Would the experience have been even more pleasant if you’d been able to be
    > up to the cashier in 1 minute? Same amount of customers, but better staffed?

    Interesting question and as it happens, I went there yesterday. I find that I don’t mind the wait because I have the beliefs that the quality is worth it and I know they make each order from scratch as it’s received; they are efficient so I know the wait won’t be that long; the prices are so low, that I expect some wait. It’s like the lines at Costco. My expectations there are different.

    The lesson is that customer satisfaction is a function of -two- things: the actual performance, and the customer’s expectations.

  6. Suzanne Devlin Says:

    I’ve been going to In-N-Out since I was six years old. It hasn’t changed one bit.

    In-N-Out is the classic example that in America, one can sell an excellent product for a fair if not extremely affordable price, treat the customer respectfully, run a spotless operation and pay an excellent wage with complete benefits and a pension and still make a very healthy profit.

    I love In-N-out. My boys make fun of me because they think I’m obsessed with it. It’s the first place I stop going down on I-5 from Oregon to California in Redding and my last stop coming back up.

    If I lived close to one, it’s quite possible my ass would by now be the size of Nebraska because surely, I would be eating there often.

    I love everything about In-N-Out. It’s an outstanding meal every single time I visit there. I even have their bumper sticker on my car.

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