Lessons From an American Icon

How In-N-Out Became a West Coast Staple

In 1948, seven years before Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant, Harry and Esther Snyder, a pair of quiet newlyweds, opened In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, California. They both served in World War II and were keen to start a small business that would help support their family. Their original stand was tiny — barely 10 feet square — but their focus on authentic local quality was big. Harry’s approach to ingredients was more like a chef from a five-star restaurant than one from a fast-food joint. Though many elements contribute to the long-term success of the In-N-Out organization, there are a few key factors that separate them from the rest.


They developed Noticing Power from the start

Any good chef will tell you, the quality of a dish is defined by the quality of the ingredients.  In-N-Out has taken this adage to heart. Harry and Ester weren’t trying to be all things to all people — Harry prepared only a few simple dishes, but he did them exceptionally well. Every morning before dawn, he would make his rounds at the markets to pick up fresh ingredients for the day ahead. He’d proceed to cook them with care in his cramped kitchen, in full view of his waiting customers. This approach to quality became the In-N-Out signature; it made the business stand out and quickly built a strong reputation. This was the start of its “Noticing Power.” Even today — nearly 70 years later — the food is still prepared in front of their customers; they can see people cutting the potatoes, slicing the onions and preparing the lettuce in plain sight. It’s simple and honest — and that approach extends to the way the owners conduct their business.


They stick to their values

In-N-Out has never floated the stock exchange, franchised their brand or touched their original menu. Beyond creating a not-so-secret, “secret” menu to foster their community of loyal fans, the organization’s values in 2019 closely resembles those of the early days, when they were flipping burgers in a ten-by-ten shack. Their family-owned approach reinforces not only the food’s authentic local quality, but also the company’s “Staying Power.” These values form In-N-Out’s brand DNA and is the very soul of its iconic brand language.

This strategy continues to work for the company. For instance, San Francisco granted the owners permission to open a restaurant in the historic Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood: a feat something no other fast-food brand has ever been able to pull off. The company was able to do so simply because they reflect the family-owned, authentic values the area sought to protect.


A slow and steady growth

Interestingly, the owners’ approach to “Scaling Power” has run counter to what most people would expect. They have not opted for the explosive international growth that most successful companies go for, but rather a slow and steady approach to Scaling Power. This strategy reflects their family-run values, as opposed to the “profit is everything” approach of big business. In fact, the Snyder’s only grandchild, Lynsi, is currently serving as the president of the company.

As a result of In-N-Out’s unwavering focus on “quality over quantity,” the company didn’t expand outside of California until 1992 — over 40 years after the company was founded. To this day, In-N-Out will never open a restaurant more than 300 miles from one of their existing food stores, meaning the chain can only be found in six of the 50 United States.

Harry and Ester’s small-town approach doesn’t mean they yield small-time profits. Revenue currently stands at more than $500 million a year and the company has an estimated value of just over a billion dollars. As the old saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.

Imagine: it all started with a burger shack smaller than a garage.


This is part of an ongoing Youtube series, Tales From The Book, which are excerpts from our book Iconic Advantage.  It explains how to grow your brand to remain timelessly relevant. To hear the authors discuss this section of the series, click on the video link here. If you have any questions or comments we’d love to hear from you.

Soon Yu is an international speaker and best-selling author on innovation and design who has been featured in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. His book, Iconic Advantage®, challenges businesses to refocus their innovation priorities on building greater iconicity and offers deep insights on establishing timeless distinction and relevance. He most recently served as the Global VP of Innovation and Officer at VF Corporation, parent organization to over 30 global apparel companies, including The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Nautica and Wrangler. He also teaches at Parsons School of Design and guest lectures at Stanford University.

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