An appetite for discovery

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Decades ago, as a college freshman new to Southern California, I learned that certain things about my new home were an indelible part of the cultural landscape. The smell of orange blossoms. The way people measured distance not by miles but by driving time. The absolute adoration for a fast-food burger joint called In-N-Out.

One really couldn't claim a Southern California identity, I learned, until one had enjoyed a Double-Double at In-N-Out.

By that standard, I wasn't a Southern Californian until this week, despite having spent my whole adult life here. Until this week, I didn't know that the In-N-Out menu was limited to three burger choices, fries and the usual fountain beverages. But this week, a friend demanded that we eat lunch at In-N-Out because he couldn't continue associating with someone so culinarily deprived, never mind that I eat a hamburger about as often as I buy a car.

It was 1:45 on Thursday when we went to an In-N-Out whose location I will not disclose because the people I talked to were not aware I was reporting. Neither was I, until later.

Turns out this In-N-Out store is a stop on the tourist/student/assisted-living-facility bus tour. In comparison with the Carl's Jr. next door, our In-N-Out was crazier than Target 10 minutes before the doors open on Black Friday.

I suggested that a hamburger was not reward enough to navigate this nonsense, but my friend was having none of it. He joined the line while I surveilled the dining room, ready to pounce on the first available table. A young, smiling fellow in a spiffy red-and-white uniform confirmed that this was a normal crowd. Sweeping the floor, he noted that we were lucky to have hit the sweet spot in between bus arrivals.

In-N-Out, born in 1948, was California's first drive-through fast-food restaurant. Since I first heard the words "Double-Double," the chain has established In-N-Out University, where managers train at the site of the original store in Baldwin Park, and has expanded into several Western states. The company remains privately held by the Snyder family and does not franchise stores.

In addition to its share of family turmoil and tragedy -- including internecine lawsuits over corporate control and a plane crash that killed one president -- In-N-Out claims a pop culture mojo. Julia Child, according to the L.A. Times, loved its food, and admitted to knowing where every I/O store was between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. She had its burgers delivered to her during a hospital stay. Fans of "The Big Lebowski" know that The Dude's crew was partial to Double-Doubles.

In the 12-ish minutes it took to get ours, several members of the I/O team roamed through the crowded room. They moved with alacrity, including the incipient mother well into her third trimester who explained to me, smiling, that although you could get ketchup at the condiment station, you have to get mustard packets from someone working the counter.

Everyone in California except me, apparently, knows that I/O burgers come with what the company calls a "spread" and everyone else calls Thousand Island dressing, and that ketchup is for the fries. They know that the limited menu and the fresh ingredients (I/O stores are not equipped with freezers or microwaves, and kitchen staffers grind the meat) are responsible for In-N-Out's reputation for excellence. And some people know of the company's reputation for paying above minimum wage and offering flexible hours. Even though they work in a zoo, these nice people seem happy taking care of the animals.

The burger? Meh.

Messy and, to my palate, indiscernible from other fast-food competitors. The fries were also disappointing. Not enough salt and not hot enough.

Ten minutes into our meal, we realized that my friend had failed to receive the chocolate shake he had ordered and paid for. I wound my way through the surging line to the counter, explained our oversight to the smiling fellow, and expected only suspicion that I was trying to cadge a free shake.

It was awaiting our attention, on the rear counter.

Although In-N-Out's food is not my idea of special, it was clear that something special was happening within this business model. It made me feel better about eating crap.

When we finished, a guy about 70 years old collected the remnants of the meal. I asked him how, given the noise and bustle of this place, all the workers could remain so cheerful.

"It's a good job," he said, adjusting his logo-ed hat and plopping down into a surprisingly vacant seat next to us.

Fritz (not his real name), explained with New York-inflected charm, that he is "in charge of the dining room." He was retired from his career, and like everybody here except the managers, is a part-time employee. He works four hours a day. Any time he wants a day off, he gets it, and his job is secure. That's true for everybody, he indicated, and some people stay here a long time. One guy was here for 12 years before he made assistant manager, according to Fritz, a full-time job that pays $40,000. The manager, he said, makes $160,000.

Asked if he wants to be here or has to be here, Fritz shrugged and said, "What else am I gonna do?"

Asked if he eats this stuff, he shook his head. "No. My arteries ..."

He still gets a free daily meal. The kitchen makes him a meat patty with cheese, no bun, or a grilled cheese sandwich, sometimes with tomato. "It's not on the menu," Fritz said,"but any customer can ask for one and get it."

Until Thursday, that was something else everybody knew but me.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein

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