4 Secrets of In-N-Out Burger’s Sustained Success


Completing our Bazaarvoice Press tour, I visited my brother in California. After a week of eating in nice restaurants, he thought I was crazy when I said, for our one night together, I wanted to have dinner at In-N-Out Burger.

Why? First, they have great food. I think there’s something about the fresh ingredients and the contrast of the thousand island sauce sweetness and the hamburgers are very salty. But they’ve had that for years.

In my experience many restaurants start to decline in quality over the years. They become complacent, unfocused, cut costs, cut quality and it’s a death spiral from there. Tony Romas is this way. But for In-N-Out, each restaurant up and down the CA coast (and I assume in other states) has been packed with customers every day I’ve visited them, as long as I can remember.

Who’s the crazy balding guy taking camera phone pictures on a busy Friday night!?

I believe the secret to In-N-Out’s sustained success is they have creative discipline. It’s an oxymoron in business and very hard to do. Balance the execution and process with the appreciation for the human side of the business and product.

Evidence of this idea, I believe there are several principles at work that have sustained In-N-Out’s success.

1) Execute Processes

In-N-Out is always busy, which means they are busy in the ‘back office’. Everyone has a job and each job has a process. They output a lot of food and do it right! These restaurants are machines (I’m sure they’re cash machines too and if they were franchiseable them I wouldn’t be writing a blog). Do you have repeatable, executable processes in your business to output quality product and maximize use of working capital.

2) Focus the Product and Create Simple Choices

In-N-Out basically sells burgers, fries, and shakes. That’s it. That makes it easy for customers to choose and easy for In-N-Out to produce. This simplicity has tangible benefits for both sides. There are only THREE ‘value meals’. Contrast this principle to its competitors who are not nearly as busy: Burger King, McDonalds, and Jack in the Box seem to have a different menu item every few months in attempt to bring customers to their franchise.

3) Value Employees

In-N-Out advertises the fact that they pay great wages. They value their employees. Costco is similar, and publicly announces they pay a premium for their employees. Money can’t be the only motivation, but it certainly attracts the best people.. In-N-Out employees are always active, always smiling, always friendly. In-N-Out knows the business benefit of attracting the best people.

4) Develop a Community Brand

In-N-Out is a cult brand. People talk about their experience eating there. People who used to live in CA (like me) go back to visit and feel re-connected to their West coast roots. In-N-Out has developed a personality and a following – enough that they can reinforce their brand with merchandise. No one is buying Burger King shirts.

Companies succeed with different strengths, but In-N-Out is able to balance personality with process and execution. They have their left and right brains working. Similar to companies like Southwest Airlines, Costco, and USAA. That’s good company to keep.

8 Responses

  1. Sam … don’t forget the quality component. In-N-Out Burger uses quality ingredients which include the ingredients of people and PRODUCT.
    They use freshly ground beef, buns that are baked fresh daily, and they hand-cut their potatoes in-store to make their scrumptious fries. I’m a healthy guy who rarely eats fast food hamburgers but when I am out West, I always make it a point to get me a Double Double Animal Style from In-N-Out.
    Business 2.0 ran a nice piece on In-N-Out back in 2003. Good reading.

  2. Aaron Post says:

    On the issue of “Develop a Community Brand”, I think one of the things that has really helped that is the “secret menu”. Where customers like myself are always talking, educating and ordering from something that I know about because of my loyalty to the brand.

  3. JohnB says:

    I live in southern california and love In-n-Out. They’ve got an unbelievable business.
    It’s interesting that they don’t even play by the same rules as Wendys, Jack in the Box, McDonalds or Burger King. All of their competitors are always adding new menu items, changing their advertising/slogans, engaging in price wars. Why??
    In N Out makes me realize how terribly unfocused most businesses are in America (not just fast food). They really put everyone else to shame.

  4. Mary Schmidt says:

    Reminds me of Chili’s before it became a ubiquitous “me too” chain. If they had managed to keep their terrific quality, funk – and their great greasy chili (which they no longer serve) – I’d bet they’d have much more loyal customers and wouldn’t have to spend a bazillion bucks every year on high gloss marketing.
    But then, I grew up eating the burgers from Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, OK (They smash a ton of very thinly sliced onions down into the hand-formed patty, top with a buttery grilled bun. Serve with mustard and pickles). See, I still dream about them! (And the Inn is still there.)

  5. Dan says:

    As an employee…I LOVE working for IN-N-OUT. I’ve been there for three years, and loving everyday of it. They care for their employees SO much. We have events every year, which include a family picnic, bowling tournaments, softball tournaments, golfing tourn., we have a can food drive during Christmas. I mean the list goes on and on…and I will continue to work at this place for a very long time….

  6. Bryan says:

    I see In-N-Out tee shirts all over Austin.
    Did you know you can get your fries animal style too? And if the double double isn’t enough for you, just order a 3×3 or a 4×4 — 4 meat and 4 cheese. The flying dutchman is a good choice too if you don’t want the pesky lettuce and tomato.
    Old man Snyder died years ago, but he refused to franchise. You can find them as far East as Las Vegas though!

  7. Tim says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. While it is well known that In-N-Out only uses fresh ingredients, why hasn’t anyone attempted to copy this model on the East Coast or elsewhere?

  8. Al says:

    I need to know if they are going to start a franchise in east coast

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