Discovering In-N-Out Burger's Secret Sauce

The hamburger chain's "secret" menu has created a rabid following without even advertising itself.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com
September 27, 2012

There is nothing really “in and out” about In-N-Out Burger. The lines are always long, but it’s well worth the wait. In-N-Out Burger is a Southern California institution with a cult-like following not unlike that of Apple or Starbucks. Its reputation extends far beyond the West Coast, though, and indulging in a Double-Double (two beef patties, plus two slices of American cheese, hand-leafed lettuce, bread spread, tomato, with or without onions, on a fresh baked bun) is on the to-do list of many tourists.

The company has in the last few years pushed beyond California to Nevada, Texas, and Arizona. When the In-N-Out opened in Scottsdale, the wait was four hours. Even people who shun fast food seem to love In-N-Out. In fact, it was one of the few establishments favored by Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation, an indictment of American fast food.

Creating Cachet 

The company was founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948 in a Los Angeles suburb. It was Harry’s innovation to start a drive-through burger stand where customers could order through a two-way speaker box. Back then, carhops and big canopied burger joints were the norm. In-N-Out Burger is known for its consistent quality, freshness (potatoes are hand-cut daily for the fries), and simple menu. But most important, In-N-Out Burger understands how to exploit the power of both customer collaboration and mystique.

The In-N-Out menu has only four food items—the same ones it started with back in 1948. You can order a Hamburger, a Cheeseburger, a Double-Double and French Fries. The fifth item is a beverage. You can enjoy the standard array of Coca-Cola products, or order one of three flavors of milkshake: chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. That’s it.

Or Is It?

One reason for the cultish phenomenon is the “secret menu.” You have to be in the know to be privy to it. The most interesting thing about the secret menu is that not only do the items on it far outnumber those on the published menu, but they are unique products, universally prepared according to a cross-company formula, and well beyond the Starbucks approach of allowing tweaks to an already extensive menu.

When you order, say, a “tall extra-hot non-fat four-pump no-whip mocha” at Starbucks, your receipt simply reads “TL Mocha.” When you order, for example, a "Flying Dutchman" or an "animal style" burger off the secret menu at any In-N-Out Burger, it will appear on the receipt just as you ordered it. But nowhere will you see anything even remotely referring to it on the menu posted above the register.

There are about a dozen “standard” off-menu items. A "two-by-four" is a burger with two beef patties and four slices of cheese. You can order any combination of meat-and-cheese you desire: 3 x 3, 4 x 4, etc. Then there's animal style, protein style (no bun, wrapped in lettuce), grilled cheese, flying dutchman, fried mustard, double-meat, veggie, and extra toast. That’s just the burgers. Fries can be "animal style," "light," or "well-done." Shakes can be "swirl" or "Neapolitan," meaning two or three of the flavors mixed.

The Secret to Success

In-N-Out has never changed their menu to reflect these items. But the customers have.The company does not actively promote, or even pay much attention to, the secret menu, but its restraint results in three key benefits:
  • By resisting formal menu expansion they’ve avoided the self-defeating overkill seen in larger fast food chains as well as consumer electronics, with its “feature creep,” and the resulting “feature fatigue.”
  • By keeping their wares pared back but enabling their patrons to add their own personal touch, they engage their customers in a unique way, paving the way for customer-lead creativity and innovation. Their only rule is “to do whatever the customer wants done to a burger.” On a Halloween weekend in October 2004, Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh and blogger What Up Willy ordered and ate—with a team of six others—a 100 x 100.
  • A sense of mystique around the secret menu delivers an unparalleled marketing pull.

Interestingly, when you talk to the executives at In-N-Out, they seem as mystified as customers by the presence of the secret menu, but they do understand the power behind the compelling value of products that can only be created by their customers. And they understand that to expand the formal menu could only detract from an important reason why In-N-Out is so very popular and successful.