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Book Review 250: In-N-Out Burger

September 11, 2012 - Harry Eagar
IN-N-OUT BURGER: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-food Chain that Breaks All the Rules, by Stacy Perman.345 pages, illustrated. Collins Business

I used to work with refugees from the San Gabriel Valley who were always raving about In-N-Out burgers and lamenting that they were not sold in Hawaii. So when I found myself next to an In-N-Out in San Diego, I had to try it.

It was a burger, neither the best nor the worst I’ve had. The fries were nowhere near as good as the pre-tallow ban McDonald’s fries (though of course much better than the vegetarian Macfries).

Thus, I idly picked up Stacy Perman’s “In-N-Out Burger” to see if I could understand the enthusiasm. What I got, instead, was a classic Southern California morality play in which innocence, greed, religion, patriotism and money lead to corpses and corruption. It should have been written by Raymond Chandler. Perman makes the least of her material.

The business tale is easily told: Harry and Esther Snyder ride the boom in California by selling carefully prepared hamburgers and emphasizing freshness and convenience to car-bound customers. They become very rich but cannily retain total control of their business in the interest of passing it on to children and grandchildren.

Except for the money, it is a disaster.

Kind people but of political and social leanings that have made Californians the butt of satire for generations, the Snyders refused to hire women.

They subscribed wholly to the Reader’s Digest fantasy of self-made Americans, and if their own practices made a mockery of that, they were incapable of recognizing it.

Eventually, In-N-Out did hire women (though none seem to have been promoted, ever), but whether this was a voluntary recognition of fairness and basic business sense or a requirement of government, Perman does not say. Suddenly, she begins to describe job applicants as “she,” but of explanation of this significant business decision, there is none.

As a business history, “In-B-Out Burger” is very poor. The company did not cooperate and since it also was not an SEC-reporting firm, writing a detailed business history would have been a challenge. Still, Perman did a lousy job of it. It is hard to believe she worked for BusinessWeek.

A further deficiency of the book is that Perman is only marginally literate. She often uses big words that sound something like the word she needs but are not that word.

Nevertheless, the story itself carries the book.

In the second generation, the attitudes created in the first begin to play out as tragedy. One son dies in a wreck. Another ruins himself with fast cars and drugs. The third, Rich, proves a successful manager but with a fatal -- literally -- blind spot.

Rich Snyder believed that God was responsible for the success of In-N-Out, rather than a good business plan and hard work. A smiling, glad-handing businessman of generous instincts (he sent an In-N-Out cookout trailer to feed the homeless once a month), his embrace of one of Southern California’s biggest cults (Calvary Chapel, which sells bigotry as relentlessly as In-N-Out sells hamburgers) turned him into an obnoxious, generous, smiling, glad-handing businessman.

Worse for him, as often happens, he had completely misinterpreted God’s attitude to overcooked meat. (Had he read the relevant portions of the Bible, he might have been more careful.) In 1993, God tired of burgers and made the corporate plane crash, killing Snyder and his management team.

So far as lawsuits reveal the truth, with the destruction of Rich Snyder, the desires of Harry Snyder to pass down wealth to blood relatives created the structure for tragedy.

Overly restrictive trusts (and a family habit of ill-considered marriages) laid his widow open to isolation and plunder, and while the burger chain multiplied, the Snyder family withered, until it was represented by one granddaughter, not as dutiful as Harry would have wished, and enamored of an even less attractive cult than Calvary Chapel.

Perhaps Theodore Dreiser would have done an even better job with this plot than Chandler.


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