In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perman: Doing Business Animal-Style [book review]
The thing that I found most intriguing about Stacy Perman's intensively researched and heavily footnoted book In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules (out in April, preorder on Amazon), is buried in the acknowledgments at the back of the book. Somewhere between expressions of gratitude to her editor at Los Angeles magazine and to the friends who kept her sane, she calls out her most direct research assistants, the In-N-Out employees "who cooked up and served my off-menu preference, Grilled Cheese Animal Style."
One of the alluring things about In-N-Out Burger, as a culinary cult as much as a restaurant, is the secret society of off-menu ordering. While the posted offerings don't stray far from "burger" and "fries," there's an established argot of off-menu specialties. Translated into normal language, Perman's "Grilled Cheese Animal Style" means "a hamburger with special sauce, hold the burger." In other words, the author of a book about one of the most beloved and lauded burger restaurants in quite possibly the entire world doesn't, herself, like burgers.
At best, this is a tangential fact to the scope of Perman's book. But in a way it explains a lot about what goes on between the covers of this volume. I'm not sure that words exist to describe how excited I was when my review copy of In-N-Out Burger arrived, but by the end of my 300-plus page slog, I was left feeling more hungry than anything else. This is a book that's missing the meat.
The Business of Burgers
In-N-Out Burger is, essentially, a corporate biography. It's not a love letter to the idiosyncratic chain, it's not a pornographic gloss of their famous hamburgers — fresh beef, never frozen, with the crispest lettuce and the plumpest tomatoes. It's published by Collins Business, and that's not by happenstance — in the end, this isn't a book about burgers. It's a profile of a business that just so happens to deal in them.
But whether you read it as a food book or a business book, it's a curious artifact. The story Perman tells spans over a century, since we begin well before the beginning: It's 1906, and Hendrick Schneider, the father of In-N-Out founder Harry Schneider, is immigrating from Amsterdam to Nova Scotia on the S.S. Laurentian.
By the time we make it to the present day, we've covered more intrafamilial plot twists than your average soap opera — because In-N-Out has been privately held by the Schneider family since the very beginning, a history of the business is also a de facto history of the Schneiders. Marriages, births, deaths, and divorces are as relevant to the changing tides of the In-N-Out empire as are the fluctuating prices of beef or the invention of the drive-thru.
What's the Angle?
This simultaneous history makes for good anecdotal reporting, but it's clumsy in a book of this depth. Read as a family history, it was difficult for me to bring myself to care about the Schneiders. Perman writes with a topic-appropriate journalistic detachment, which means that we're informed of Rich Schneider meeting and falling in love with his wife with exactly the same measured tone that we're told how Harry Schneider insisted to his suppliers that his tomatoes be a certain size.
At the same time, it was also hard for me to find the business value in the portrait of In-N-Out's development. Hinging as it does on the idiosyncracies of the family behind it, it's not something that can very easily be modeled or emulated. In fact, at times I found myself wondering if this book was actually a cautionary tale — dealing with family members with drug problems or sudden onsets of evangelical Christianity is enough of a handful when the people in question aren't also members of your corporate board. Not to mention that in digressions tracing the growth of competitors McDonald's and Burger King, Perman inadvertently reveals how un-unique the In-N-Out story is. It's just one of the handful of burger shacks with humble beginnings that have lasted into present-day brandhood. And, for that matter, it's the one with the smallest revenue and fewest stores.
For all that, though, I'm missing the point. The reason In-N-Out merits a book isn't because it's the most profitable restaurant in the country or because the secrets to its success are easily cross-applied to other businesses. The reason this book exists — and the reason thousands of people will read it — is that In-N-Out has cultivated such loyalty among its followers that it's about time everyone knew the story behind what they're being loyal to. It's a juicy one — maybe not as much so as a double-double, but juicy all the same.