In-N-Out opened in Dallas this month. I was in Korea on business when it happened, but as soon as I returned I decided to swing by and get a burger. The restaurant opened early in the week. I showed up on Saturday to a line of cars that was probably a half mile long, at least. That was just the drive-through. The line of people outside on a gorgeous Texas spring day was more than a hundred strong. Maybe you heard about all of this. Maybe you saw the woman crying tears of joy at the opening of a new fast food restaurant. It did make national news, after all.
[Image credit: Mike Fabio]
It’s fascinating to me how our digital lifestyle has changed and warped an event like the opening of a new fast food joint. A place that serves only burgers and fries and drinks. There is no hot dog at In-N-Out. There is no obligatory chicken sandwich, or fillet-o-fish-a-like. There is a much ballyhooed secret menu, but I’ll get to that later.
I don’t think the opening would have been what it was in a less digital world. First, how would so many people in Texas have known what In-N-Out was? It’s a mostly West Coast chain. Actually, all In-N-Out burgers have to be within a certain distance of the home base meat processing center. To open a store in north Texas (2, actually, on the same day), In-N-Out had to construct a new site to grind their beef. They ship beef fresh. The new surge of In-N-Outs started in Texas, but undoubtedly any city within striking distance of a refrigerated truck is going to be hit by the tornad . . . er, the floo. . ., um, there’s going to be a lot of crazy burger fans coming.
Of course, word spread on the Internet. I don’t give the Internet all of the credit. Clearly In-N-Out has to be somewhat special to draw such a crowd. After all, there was no line the first day a new Five Guys Burgers and Fries opened. And Whataburger can probably open a dozen stores without so much as a raised eyebrow from the cognescenti. But we have become a culture of increasingly uniform style and taste. If something is popular in California, you’ll hear about it in Texas, in South Dakota, and in New Hampshire.
When I got to In-N-Out that first time, I didn’t stay. I knew about how long that line would take. Bloggers had already reported waiting 3 hours or more on the first day (for fast food burgers and fries). A cynical YouTuber has made a video from his car, driving slowly up the lane to show the world how long the line for my local In-N-Out stretched. From those impressions, I figured the current line, less than a week later, was about half as long. I was not going to wait for an hour and a half to buy a burger.
I drove by In-N-Out again mid-week, after the lunch time rush. The line was much shorter. Only a few cars poked out of the parking lot. It was longer than I would normally wait for a burger, but I decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a much longer wait than i expected. The line curved around the parking lot a bit, and by the time I was in the middle, I was trapped and couldn’t easily leave. I ended up waiting about 40 minutes, and I’m embarrassed that I stayed that long.
This was not my first trip to In-N-Out. I went to one in Las Vegas during a CES trade show a couple years ago. I got a standard burger. Nothing special. Nothing from the vaunted secret menu. I wasn’t terribly impressed. Then I started to hear everyone raving about the secret menu. On Twitter and the food blogs to which I subscribe, the words “Double Double Animal Style” kept recurring.
That’s what I ordered. With fries and a Dr. Pepper. For those who don’t know, a “Double Double Animal Style” is a burger with two patties (the first double); two slices of cheese (the second double); extra “spread,” the thousand-island-like dressing that comes standard; grilled, chopped onions; pickles, lettuce and tomato. The burger is cooked on a griddle, and one or both of the patties is squirted with mustard before being flipped.
How did I know what was on an Animal Style burger? Wikipedia, of course. I could have asked one of my West Coast friends, but why bother? A quick visit to Wikipedia is all it took. Actually, I now know that In-N-Out posts some of the so-called secret menu items on their Web site, in the “Menu” section, under a link labeled “Not So Secret Menu.” In-N-Out has trademarked the term “Animal Style.”
The Internet has ruined being “in the know.” There was a time when it was cool to know things other people didn’t. It’s still a point of pride for some geeks, but more often than not, you can find an explanation for the great mysteries of our culture in a quick Google search.
Did someone use a term you’ve never heard before? Some slang you want to understand? Try UrbanDictionary.com. Are people talking about an inside joke, and you don’t understand the punchline? Some video that has been making waves on the Internet? I like “knowyourmeme.com” for cultural touchstones. Did you get an urgent email explaining that Facebook is going to auction nude pictures of you to advertisers in Nigeria? Try “Snopes.com” for information.
My favorite Snopes rumor, by the way, is the rumor that Snopes is owned by XXXX company. That’s just so meta. Can Snopes debunk this? Perhaps there needs to be a SnopesSnopes to debunk rumors about Snopes.
It’s hard to see much wrong with a public that can be more reliably informed. If anything, I wish people would use these tools much more often. I have a cousin whom I have pointed in Snopes’ direction at least a half dozen times since becoming friends on Facebook. I wish there was a similar site for novice technology users. David Pogue, the New York Times tech writer, publishes occasional helpful columns like this one, but there should be an entire site with a similar tech help database.
But I digress, and my burger is getting cold.
I didn’t like the Double Double Animal Style. It’s not my type of burger. I knew that when I ordered it, but so many of my cool West Coast friends ranted and raved about this burger, I figured I would try one. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I don’t like lettuce and tomato on burgers. I don’t like chopped onions. Reminds me too much of McDonald’s horrible patties. I don’t like an abundance of sauce. With burgers, for me, the meat is most important, followed by the cheese, then the bun.
I decided to give In-N-Out one more try, but this time I did some more research. Serious Eats, my favorite food blog, did a full-blown investigation of the In-N-Out secret menu, with pictures to boot. I came up with the order I wanted and headed to In-N-Out the next week.
As a side note, my favorite item on the secret menu, in terms of sheer ludicrous indulgence, is the “Flying Dutchman.” I did not, and will not, order this burger, though I may advise a friend to order this as a prank. It’s a double double with no bun. Just burgers sitting on paper. Get it “Animal Style” and they’ll dollop extra sauce and onions on top. At least the Atkins freaks use lettuce to pick up their sandwiches. The “Flying Dutchman” offers no such barrier.
I ordered a Double Triple Mustard Fried Whole Grilled Onions Chiles on the Side With Fries, Well Done. That’s two beef patties, with the mustard griddle trick applied; three slices of cheese; grilled onions left whole, not chopped; and a bag containing two little, yellow, spicy peppers on the side. The fries are cooked to a more brown shade, instead of the pale blond you’ll normally get. Incidentally, In-N-Out’s fries are awful. Horrible. The worst you’ll find at any successful fast food restaurant. Considering they make up half the menu, I’m not sure how the place has gotten away with this travesty for so long.
The burger was good. Actually, it was very good. Because the line is still a bit long, In-N-Out has workers taking preorders while you wait. The girl who took my preorder was visibly impressed by my selection.
“That’s the longest order I’ve taken yet,” she said. The slip of paper she handed me, my claim ticket for a burger and fries, was a string of coded letters. I assume she meant it was the most letters in a row, because I only ordered one sandwich.
“Have you been to In-N-Out before?” asked the girl at the register window. I told her I had. “Because that’s an unusual order. Sounds like a great burger, but we haven’t made one like that before.”
See, I’m in the know. Not because I have cool friends who passed along some information. Not because I’m such an experience In-N-Out customer, but because I did a quick Google search and clicked through a slideshow on a blog. I didn’t feel cool. I felt kind of embarrassed. Who wants to be recognized as an expert at ordering a hamburger from a fast food restaurant? Who wants to show up in an Internet video because he waited on line for hours to buy a burger and fries with extra ‘spread?’
After the launch of the latest Apple iDevices, friends and I pondered what other product has people lining up for hours to buy it (disclosure: I work for Samsung. We make stuff that competes with the stuff you waited 12 hours in line to buy.) I remember seeing lines for some gaming systems. I remember waiting in line for a couple hours to see the first Batman movie, the Tim Burton film. Now, I’ve seen people waiting in line for a burger and fries. It isn’t about the product itself. It’s the hype. And there is no way In-N-Out would have generated so much hype without the lightspeed, wide-reaching and homogenizing influence of the Internet.
In the end, I may go back to In-N-Out, but it’s not my favorite burger in town. I prefer Five Guys. I like their fries much, much better. I like that they have A1 sauce, and bacon, and a whole bunch of other toppings listed right up front on their menu board. I like the free peanuts while you wait. I like the Android app for Five Guys that lets me order take out in advance, so I can just run in and out without having to wait long. Most of all, though, I just think they make a better burger.