★ ★ ★ ★ It’s difficult to be critical of In-N-Out. From the macro (their insistence on freshness and quality, for example) to the micro (the fact that they hang the punctuation on their fry trays) there’s much to laud about this fast-service fixture of the California roadway. In its category, In-N-Out makes the most consistently satisfying burger around. But rather than further polish their already lustrous image by adding one more ode to the countless others that praise its excellence, this review will focus on one distasteful byproduct of the chain’s most significant innovation. Hint: it has to do with Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare introduced nearly 1,700 words to the English language, including nine from the (admittedly labored) passage above: critical, fixture, roadway, lustrous, ode, countless, excellence, distasteful, and hint. In-N-Out, on the other hand, gave us the drive through. More horrifying, they gave us the word thru.
Harry and Esther Snyder opened the first In-N-Out in Baldwin Park, California in 1948, the same year McDonald’s shifted its focus from barbecue to hamburgers. Like McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr., In-N-Out was early to embrace the new fast-service restaurant model and burgeoning car culture. Unlike their competitors, the restaurant was founded with a vision for achieving maximum quality rather than maximum quantity. Committed to using “the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy,” providing friendly service, and offering both in a “sparkling clean environment,” In-N-Out built a small but loyal following over the next 30 years. Adhering to both its original mission and menu, they expanded to 28 locations by the time Harry Snyder died in 1976. McDonald’s, by contrast, opened its 4,000th store that same year. While McDonald’s’ Ray Kroc and others eschewed short-order cooking for sophisticated process management techniques—essentially reducing the ‘cooking’ process to an assembly line—Snyder insisted that his all-beef patties be cooked to order, fresh potatoes be cut for the fries, and the slow-rising sponge-dough buns be baked on site. The Snyders also refused to franchise, believing it would cause them to lose their grip on quality.
Besides their operational differences, In-N-Out also distinguishes itself on the experience side. For 66 years their menu has remained essentially unchanged. They offer a burger in three varieties (hamburger, cheeseburger and double cheeseburger), three flavors of shake, and fries. The rudimentary menu simplifies the ordering experience and reinforces the company’s ethos of doing a few things well. Their famous ‘secret menu’ allows the restaurant to customize orders to individual customer preferences while keeping the core offering streamlined and focused. Little touches also abound. There are fresh lemon wedges at the self-serve soda fountain, free hats and stickers for the kids, and a motif of peculiarly crossed palm trees which exist only to pay tribute the cult film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a favorite of the late Harry Snyder.
When the lines get too long at the drive through, In-N-Out sends employees out to take your order directly.
Oh, the drive through. That’s where this all started isn’t it?
In-N-Out is widely credited with inventing the drive through restaurant. Drive-in restaurants were already popular at the time, but the Snyders were the first to take the concept a step further with introduction of the drive up order window. Though some dispute that claim, everyone agrees that they were the first to employ an intercom system for ordering, an innovation which sped up the process considerably (though their cook-to-order policy still resulted in long lines and traffic jams, causing some cities to delay or deny new building permits). Somewhere in their quest to balance quality and expediency, the decision was made to designate the new drive-up ordering lane as the ‘Drive Thru.’
Though the preposition thru has existed as an informal spelling of through since 1839, it has always been fairly obscure. After the Snyders used it in their signage, imitators followed suit. Today, t-h-r-u is the defacto spelling in the context of the drive thru and is slowly creeping into everyday usage as well. While I concede that language is constantly evolving, the infiltration of words like quik, thru, nite, etc. are particularly irksome. No only do they look bad, they are lazy, dumbed-down versions of actual words, employed simply for convenience. Whenever I go through an In-N-Out (don’t get me started on that ‘N’) I cringe. When I see a Krispy Kreme I kringe. When it comes to Toys "Я" Us I don’t know what to do. Notwithstanding the double prime marks in place of quotation marks (which are themselves grammatically incorrect), the backwards ‘R’ for ‘are’ is insultingly stupid. On top of it all it should read Toys Are We. Got Milk? Because internet.
In nearly every other aspect of its operations, presentation and culture, In-N-Out is uncompromising. Their use of language, however, is doubleplusungood. I don’t expect a burger chain to hold high the banner for grammatical correctness, but for one to whom every detail seems to matter, such lexical laziness is especially disappointing.
The Creative Lesson
I suppose this is less of a lesson and more of a rant. The verb ‘rant,’ by the way, was coined by Shakespeare.