My life as a fast-food consumer pretty much ended the moment my kids became old enough to drive themselves to the nearest hamburger stand.
But even back then I knew that all such chains could be divided into two categories: There was In-N-Out, and there was everybody else.
To be sure, there are other fascinations. These include the mystique created by its management's traditional refusal to ever speak to the press (including for this column).
Then there are the biblical citations imprinted on the edges and seams of its burger wrappers and disposable cups, a practice started by the late Richard Snyder, the born-again younger son and onetime heir apparent to In-N-Out's founders, Harry and Esther Snyder.
Finally, there are the intertwined issues of In-N-Out's colorful past and its unsettled future, which are touched on in a new book titled simply "In-N-Out Burger," by BusinessWeek writer Stacy Perman.
Perman observes that In-N-Out has prospered by hewing close to the stolid principles of controlled growth, limited menu, fresh food and regional focus -- with the exception of one store in Utah, its 232 locations are all in California, Nevada or Arizona -- set in stone by its founders, like commandments. (Harry died in 1976, his widow in 2006.) As a private company, In-N-Out doesn't release financial figures, though the trade press estimated sales in 2005 at $370 million -- a healthy sum for a small chain.
Southern Californians have grown up appreciating the company's virtues, while the rest of the country slavers from afar: In-N-Out generally pays better than other burger chains, in return for which employees are held to rigorous standards of appearance and behavior. It's a fair bet you'll never see a video on YouTube of workers adulterating In-N-Out food even in jest, as recently befell another chain.
In-N-Out management, from corporate headquarters in Baldwin Park and Irvine down to store level, is first class.
"The executive corps is the key to their success at weathering problems," says Perman, who didn't get the company's help with her book.
The menu never changes -- burgers that can be piled high like flapjacks, fries and shakes or soda. The provisions are all fresh thanks to the chain's fabled quality control and a tight geographic footprint that keeps all stores within a few hundred miles of regional distribution centers. There's no denying that next to an In-N-Out burger, the fare at McDonald's, despite the latter's relentless menu experimentation and customer research, tastes like premasticated garbage.
That's not to say that In-N-Out serves health food. I don't have room here for a detailed analysis of its nutritional value, other than to say that a normal adult should be able to cross the Sahara fueled by the caloric, fat and sodium content of a standard dose double-double with fries and a shake. I believe the In-N-Out meal I ingested a week ago Tuesday (submitted as a reporting expense) is still burbling about in my system somewhere, not that I didn't enjoy it to the utmost.
Yet In-N-Out's history is anything but dull. The Snyders established a line of succession skipping over their older son, Guy, in favor of the more stable Richard. That well-laid plan dissolved with Richard's death in a 1993 plane crash. The inheritance passed to Guy, who had a history of drug abuse and died from an overdose of a prescription painkiller in 1999. With Esther's death seven years later, majority control became vested in two family trusts. It will pass after 2011 to Guy's only natural child, his daughter Lynsi Martinez, 27.
What little has been said about Martinez for public consumption comes from the 2006 court battle between the company and Richard Boyd, a former executive who said he had grown close to Esther, only to be shouldered aside by Lynsi and In-N-Out Chief Executive Mark Taylor, the husband of one of her half-sisters.
The fight aired a pile of In-N-Out's dirty laundry, which goes to prove that no matter how hard you work to keep your public image sewn up tight, it can blow at any seam.
Boyd alleged that Taylor and Martinez kept the nearly bedridden Esther Snyder a virtual prisoner in her home, screening and intercepting phone calls and visitors. He depicted Martinez as an immature religious fanatic with a taste for "partying hard" who cast him from the company after concluding he was no "man of God."
The company dismissed these assertions as "conspiracy theories" and said Boyd had been dismissed for fraud and embezzlement. Boyd called the allegations against him "demonstrably false."
The dueling lawsuits were eventually settled on confidential terms, though the courthouse allegations animate Perman's book. Boyd, for his part, remains upbeat about the company where he worked for more than 20 years.
"It's a great company," he told me this week. "When Rich Snyder died, he had so many good people in place that it never missed a heartbeat."
But that still leaves the question of how forcibly Martinez might impose her will on the company and -- even more intriguing -- what is her will? Once she takes formal ownership, if she declares In-N-Out will henceforth sell only Buffalo Burgers or Broccoli Burgers, or will dispense prayers rather than food, her word will be law. Indeed, given the inviolability of the trusts, her word probably already is law.
What should keep the chain's fans up at night is whether In-N-Out can continue to tread the fine line between modern business imperatives and its own traditions. Taylor has been quoted as saying he intends to stick to a pattern of opening 10 to 12 new stores a year, though Boyd claimed in his lawsuit that he had heard him express national ambitions.
An expansion across the Mississippi would probably strain In-N-Out's self-generated financial resources to the limit -- the chain doesn't even accept franchisees. But a public offering, much less a buyout by a public company, would almost certainly render it unrecognizable. The homogenizing cost-cutting of corporate number-crunchers ("let's drop the beef by a grade; the customers won't notice") could mean the end of In-N-Out as we know it.
That suggests the company's best option might be to remain the happy prisoner of its own success. Boyd may be right when he says: "If they leave it exactly as it is and don't make any changes, they'll last forever."