The Emperor Has No Clothes: Why In-N-Out Burger Is Overrated

I know what I’m about to say is going to make more than a few people’s heads explode, but it needs to be said: In-N-Out Burger ain’t what it used to be.

No, really.

Trust me on this one, folks; I know what I’m talking about.

I’ve been eating at In-N-Out for well over 30 years now. I grew up with an In-N-Out Burger down the street from my childhood home, which is a big reason why I’ve already eaten more Double Doubles in my lifetime than most people ever will. I can’t tell you how many times I rode my bike to that In-N-Out restaurant as a teenager and stuffed myself on what were the best double cheeseburgers anywhere, bar none.

Of course, that was a long time ago, back when In-N-Out Burger had fewer than 25 burger stands, most of them strictly drive-through — and all of them in Southern California.

Today, In-N-Out has built a modest empire of 212 stores spread throughout California. Another 69 restaurants have also popped up in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas.

Over the years, In-N-Out has built their rock solid and well-deserved reputation primarily on two pillars:

1. Simplicity. Unlike most burger chains, In-N-Out’s menu isn’t big. In addition to the aforementioned Double Double, they also offer a cheeseburger, hamburger, fries, shakes and soft drinks. That’s it. Yes, if you’re really hungry you can order a four-by-four (quadruple meat, quadruple cheese) or make other arcane requests, but in the end, it’s all just different permutations of the basic menu.

2. Quality. Compared to places like McDonald’s, the food at In-N-Out Burger always takes a bit longer to prepare, but the consistent high quality products being served up always made it worth the wait.

Unfortunately, over the past year, I’ve noticed that In-N-Out’s once-dependable quality has been slipping. If the burgers weren’t over-cooked or lacked proper seasoning, they were garnished with tasteless tomatoes and wilted or colorless lettuce.

Compounding In-N-Out’s problem is the quality of their fresh-cut French fries has also gone downhill.

I love crispy fries, but the last time the Honeybee and I dined at an In-N-Out, the French fries were overcooked so badly that they had crossed the culinary rubicon, actually ending up someplace far beyond crispy. The French fries weren’t burnt, mind you. But they were fried until the fluffy centers were cooked out of them. And they were hard as a rock. That wasn’t the first time it happened either.

That incident ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were both so fed up with the declining quality at In-N-Out that we reluctantly agreed to take a long sabbatical from the Double Doubles.

When In-N-Out Burger is on their game, they really are the best of the best. However, I’m beginning to wonder if In-N-Out has finally gotten a bit too big for its own good.

I realize one bad experience can be written off as a fluke, and two can be considered coincidence. The trouble is three bad experiences over the past year clearly indicate a trend, and anything more than that would suggest the declining quality I’ve been experiencing lately has, sadly, become an institutional habit.

I really hope that’s not the case, but the evidence is worrisome.

Photo Credit: Aaron Friedman

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    Living here in flyover territory, I’ve never eaten at an In-N-Out burger. We almost made a special trip when we were in Vegas, as I’ve heard a lot about them from my left coast friends over the years. I guess I’m glad that we skipped it now.

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      I know this is going to sound silly after what I just wrote, Greg, but if you haven’t tried a Double Double, I still recommend trying one.

      I can think of a lot of burger places that, on their best day, couldn’t hold a candle to In-N-Out on its worst.

  2. 3

    says

    Now it’s time to find a small independent burger joint. The chains here are all the same but 2 years ago a small independent burger joint opened in a tiny shack like building. With in 2 years their attention to quality and customer service made them best burger joint in the city. The other benefits is that the shop brought people (and $) into a community that did not have the best reputation, instilling a little bit of civic pride for its residence.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      We have another small hamburger joint here in Southern California called Baker’s that has been around for about 60 years. They also have great Mexican food. Unlike In-N-Out, they’ve remained small — I think there are still only 30 restaurants, all in SoCal. The quality is top-notch and has been as long as I can remember. It’s definitely my family’s favorite fast food place. I just hope they continue to remain small and local!

    • 7

      Len Penzo says

      Like I told Greg, don’t let my reporting persuade you not to try In-N-Out when you’re out here. Judge for yourself. I’m sure many folks disagree with me.

  3. 8

    Renee says

    If you ever make it to Nebraska, you must try a cheeseburger from Runza. Best. Burgers. Ever. Made with fresh ground Nebraska beef; you will be hard pressed to find a better burger. And make sure you get a side of onion rings too! (and no, I don’t work for Runza, but I should…just to get the employee discount!)

    • 9

      Len Penzo says

      Thanks for the tip, Renee! I do occasionally get to the Omaha area on business travel. Next time I am there, I will see if I can find one.

  4. 10

    says

    We don’t have those here but I’ve heard of them. It always stinks when a favorite place loses its mojo. If I were you, I would contact them to make sure they hear that you’re not satisfied. If they don’t hear anything, they may not know that there’s a problem. Also, if they franchise, the particular franchise owner/operator could be making some missteps, and if you let them know at the corporate level, this could get their attention or perhaps raise a flag to the franchise owner that they’d better get it together. Just a few thoughts.

  5. 16

    Lola says

    Len, I think you should write to In n Out about this. I know that most people will just avoid restaurants where they’ve gotten bad service/quality, but nothing will improve unless management is notified of the problems. The reason In n Out expanded so slowly in the beginning is because they were very concerned about quality control. As a long-time fan of In n Out, I’m sad to hear your review. Please write to them, and hopefully they will take corrective measures!

    • 17

      Len Penzo says

      Agreed, Lola. I am going to contact In-N-Out.

      They’re not the only ones who have been going downhill. I’ve noticed declining quality in several restaurants over the past few years. My family has stopped going to a couple of them because of it too.

  6. 18

    says

    I think a lot depends on the individual location. The one near me is great! Although fresh french fries sounds better, frozen actually taste better. They fry up better and stay crisp longer. Fresh ones start to limp very quickly. This is not just personal opinion, I used to own a hamburger place (Marina Del Rey).

    • 19

      Len Penzo says

      What was the name of the place? I may have eaten there!

      I love fresh, homemade French fries. I make them at home in the deep fryer. Mmmmm mmmm. And here’s the secret to great home-cooked fries: always use peanut oil!

  7. 20

    CAreader says

    I agree with you. The burgers and fries at the In-N-Out in Davis, CA are bland at best, and I’ve gone there probably six times in the last eight months, until I finally stopped going because it’s not a fluke – they just aren’t very good here. The fries are always lukewarm at best and never crisp. I’ll take the advice of your reader above and contact the manager. I only eat burgers once a month at most, and always liked In-N-Out for the reasons you mentioned above (and because the burgers supposedly do not come from the meat of several cows combined). I haven’t had a burger since I stopped eating here.

  8. 21

    says

    WHAT?! Yes, you just made my head explode. That said, I live out East, so I’ve only eaten at In-N-Out Burger perhaps twice in my life, and both of those times were more than a year ago. Perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead?

  9. 22

    CandiO says

    That’s distressing. The 6 months I lived in AZ, the In N Out became my fav place. I have been craving one for years!

    I second the Runza suggestion, it’s the best thing about Omaha!

  10. 23

    Denise says

    I’ve got to agree. I’ve started going to Five Guys, they’ve made it out here to California. They remind me a lot of In-N-Out but they do have hot dogs too. There’s two right off the 15, in Norco and Eastvale. There might me another one closer to you.

    • 24

      Len Penzo says

      I’ve eaten at the Five Guys in Redlands, Denise. They are very good. Not sure if they are as good as In-N-Out in their heyday, but they are very good!

  11. 25

    Earl W. says

    Being primarily an East Coast guy I had never been to an In-and-Out until just a little over a year ago or so. At a business conference some of our group went on how Wendy’s (new at the time) W burger was trying to copy a double-double, and our SoCal hosts said it was pathetic. I admitted to never having been to an In-and-Out. Of course immediately we’re off to In-and-Out to try a double-double “animal style” (which as I understand it is a “secret” way to order it, but it’s not really a secret at all? I don’t get it).

    The local gents all waited with bated breathe for me to confirm that it was the best burger I’ve ever had. It was good. But I didn’t get what the big deal is. Was it better than most offerings from the big national chains? Yeah, probably. But was it better than the burgers from any number of other local burger stands or regional chains throughout the country? Nope. Not even close to a number of them either. If someone asked me to make a list of my favorite burgers In-and-Out probably wouldn’t even cross my mind to be on there.

    I really think West Coast people have over-hyped In-and-Out burgers. A regional chain using local fresh ingredients is a better burger than the Mickey D’s and i’s clones of the world? No surprise there. But I could name any number of other regional chains that a vastly superior to In-and-Out.

  12. 26

    DBall says

    I’ve tried a lot of different burger joints, and now I have a Five Guys one mile south of me, and an In N Out one mile north of me, and a Habit two miles away. Just returned from NYC where I tried Shake Shack and Burger Joint.

    I’ve got to say, Shake Shack might edge out In N Out, but in CA, In N Out reigns supreme over Habit and Five Guys. In N Out still tastes fresher, healthier. A lifetime of double doubles might require angioplasty, but you’d need the procedure after just a few Five Guys burgers.

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      Yes, the Habit! They’re very good too. We have a Habit down the street from us. If I had to rank them with In-N-Out and Five Guys, I’d probably rank them in this order:

      1. In-N-Out (in their prime)
      2. Habit
      3. Five Guys

      And if you’re ever in the mood for a chili cheeseburger, you can’t beat Tommy’s — especially the one on Rampart in downtown in LA. There are no tables — everyone has to stand at a counter. But it’s a great atmosphere.

  13. 28

    John says

    No In and Out burgers in Tennessee. Nashville has it’s own small chain (I suspect such is the case in many cities) named Fat Mo’s that sells one fine burger!

  14. 29

    says

    Len, as a recent SoCal transplant to Northern Utah I was thrilled to have a new In-N-Out in metro Salt Lake City. Even on an off day they are better than most.
    Eric.

  15. 30

    Kay says

    What’s funny is how something HAS to be the best. There really is no such thing, I’ve had good burgers everywhere, In-in-out is no better at turning out great tasting food than a sole proprietor hand forming patties down on the local corner at 4.99 a combo meal. I agree “overrated” the corporation is to big.

  16. 31

    johnny says

    For me Five Guys is way too expensive. I have 3 kids to feed and we can all fill up at In n Out for 1/2 of what it costs me to feed my family at Five Guys. Five Guys uses peanut oil for the french frys, that eliminates those hungry people with peanut allergies or peanut intolerance. I don’t really find a huge difference in the burgers themselves. The toppings differ but no big difference in the meat.

  17. 32

    Molly says

    I moved from Oklahoma to California six years ago. A few months after I finally settled in, I started jonesing for a good hamburger, which having grown up in cattle country I guess I sort of took for granted. Everyone I know out here raves about In-N-Out but honestly after nearly a year’s search for a good burger, I’ve decided the reputation comes from being in a part of the country where people simply don’t know any better. It is HARD to find a good hamburger out here. There is plenty right with the California food scene, but this beloved chain would probably rank in the bottom of a top ten list of chains in my native state.

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