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The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: In-N-Out Burger

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What's an "Animal Style" burger, and why would God care?

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While the McDonald brothers' first fast-food restaurant opened in 1940, it was only when Ray Kroc opened the ninth McDonald's (MCD) -- the first to be franchised -- in 1955 that the company set off on the path to becoming the behemoth it is today.

By contrast, in 1948, a god-fearing couple by the name of Harry and Esther Snyder set up their own fast-food restaurant -- in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles -- and it would grow to become a boutique and cult alternative to Ray Kroc's vision of fast food. Their business plan hasn't changed since their first opening: "Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment."

The menu was simple, featuring three styles of burger: hamburger, cheeseburger, and "Double-Double" (double meat/double cheese). Burgers still come with lettuce, tomato, with or without onions, and a sauce called "spread". Fries, fountain drinks and three flavors of milkshakes are also available.

There's also a (not so) "secret menu" which includes such treats as the "3x3" (three patties and three slices of cheese), "4x4" (guess the difference), grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie burgers, Neapolitan shakes, and "Animal Style", a house specialty fry that comes with two slices of melted cheese, spread, and grilled onions on top. Animal Style burgers have mustard fried into the meat patties as they cook, and also include pickles, grilled onions and extra spread.

It was a trademark of In-N-Out to accommodate burger orders of any size by adding patties at an additional cost -- until 2004, when someone ordered a 100x100. Management has since frowned on anything larger than four patties.

The Snyders were pioneers of the drive-through hamburger stand; at the time those who wanted to order food from their car were typically served by car hops. But it wasn't until 1951 that the Snyders opened their second restaurant. By the time of Harry's death in 1976, the couple had only opened 18 outlets.

Sons Guy and Rich worked in the restaurants from the ground floor as children, and when Harry died, Rich became the company president, at age 24. The company expanded rapidly under his leadership over the following 20 years, growing to over 90 restaurants. Then in 1992, In-N-Out expanded outside California for the first time, opening in Las Vegas.

After opening their 93rd restaurant on December 15, 1993, Rich and four other passengers were in a charter flight approaching a California airport when their plane was caught in the wake of a Boeing 757 landing at the same airport. The charter plane crashed; there were no survivors. The ensuing investigation led to the requirement for an adequate distance between heavy aircraft and following light aircraft to allow wake turbulence to diminish.

As a born-again Christian, Rich had been responsible for inserting references to Biblical quotes in small type on some of the packaging since the mid-80's. According to Stacy Perman, who authored a history book on the popular company, one thing Rich didn't want was to face Jesus in the afterlife and be asked to explain why he hadn't promoted the gospel. Dean Atkins, a regional manager for the chain said, "After [Rich] passed, we kept on doing it out of respect for him. It was just something he wanted to do."

Brother Guy then took over the business and continued its expansion through California, Arizona, and Nevada. He added nearly 50 new locations before his untimely death, six years later, from an allegedly accidental overdose of Vicodin. (The publicity-shy Snyder family has refused to comment on the exact cause of death.) His mother and original co-founder Esther then took over the company.

Esther Snyder lasted seven years before dying in 2006 at the grand old age of 86, when former vice president of operations Mark Taylor took over -- the first outsider to do so. In-N-Out remains privately owned and has no plans to franchise or take the company public.
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