Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perman

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules
Stacy Perman

This book was just released this year in April by Harper Business.

Really I knew nothing about this hamburger chain except that I had seen the name mentioned a few times in various discussion board posts. Usually it was along the lines of "we should get one of those" places or "why don't we have an In-N-Out here."

But it is a California chain and I've been to California a total of three times in my life. And never did I go there to eat a hamburger. So I suppose it isn't all that strange that I would not have been to an In-N-Out.

And after reading the book it makes me want to go to one just to try it for myself.

The prologue describes the opening of a store in Tuscon, AZ in 2007. The description reminded me of my own experience with the Chick-Fil-A here at Fritts Farm in Moore, OK. Except, of course, that Chick-Fil-A sells chicken and In-N-Out sells hamburgers. And Chick-Fil-A is here and In-N-Out isn't.

But there are many other similarities between the two firms. Notably both are family owned which is to say private. Both have gone their own way rather than the "corporate" way. Both have a cult-like following (I started to write "kind of" but there is no "kind of" about it). Both have a nearly fanatical obsession with customer service, food quality, and cleanliness.

All that is well and good but not so much really what fascinated me about this story. Rather it is the similarity and contrast to my own family and personal story.

I'm not bothering with a review. Amazon offers plenty of those: editorial here and user here.

My family didn't sell hamburgers but we had a family business when I was growing up and when my children were growing up and now we have another one.

Thanks to my son who was on vacation in California and was able to get this nighttime picture for me of an actual In-N-Out Burger place. That's probably about as close as I'm going to get for now.

The In-N-Out story is many stories of course as are most involving humans. Every person that worked at In-N-Out probably could tell their own story in fact and it would be just as full of drama and interest as the one in this book.

But the story of In-N-Out is more than anything else the story of Harry and Esther Snyder and their sons, Rich and Guy. Harry was born in the same year as my mother and Esther in 1920 so I put them in the same age range as my own parents. They opened the first store in the year I was born and their sons were just a little younger than I am. So we share a time if not a place.

So I see family lessons in this story and I see business lessons as well. There are other lessons, too, but I'll leave those for others. I think family and business is a sufficiently large universe for my brief exploration.

The first thing that occurs to me is the idea of recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities as they come along. That's what it seems to that Harry and Esther Snyder did and that's what my mom and dad did as well. It wasn't that my parents had any great plan or that they wanted to be rich. They wanted to earn a living for their family and they used what they had. And they worked their tails off, too.

Is is really that hard to recognize opportunities?

Yes, it is. Just listen to people talk sometime. I had someone the other day say to me that they could have bought my dad's farm or land around it. In the context he was letting me know that he felt he missed an opportunity. Or I hear people say things like "I thought of something like that and I don't know why I didn't act on it." I received an email a few years ago from a friend I've not seen since high school. He told about working for Hewlett-Packard when they were still in a garage. But he left before the company became successful.

Then there is the power of "saying NO."

That what my dad and mom did when it came to their farm. Over the years they had so many offers to sell it. And I'm certain there was at least some temptation because I know there were money problems at various times. But Dad just kept saying "NO" and held on to the farm. Harry and Esther Snyder and their sons did the same thing.

In both cases money was not the overarching motivating factor. I'm not saying it was unimportant because it was. But Harry Snyder wanted to make hamburgers his way and he stuck to that. My Dad used to tell me to "pay attention to your business and let other people worry about theirs."

Don't borrow money. Both my parents and the Snyders just would not do anything they could not afford without borrowing.

A couple of serious negatives though I noticed from the book.

One is that family businesses become just all consuming. I know this from personal experience and it is surely something the book makes clear in the case of In-N-Out. There is this confusion that occurs between where family life ends and business life begins.

The family business can be used to control family members and others who work for the business. That almost always has negative repercussions for everyone involved. I saw that first hand as well.

In the Snyder's case the business caused a terrible rift in the family. So far we've managed to avoid that and I want to make sure we never, ever let the family business become more important than the family. Just not worth it.

That's about it I guess.

I hope to get to an In-N-Out Burger someday and try it out.

I very much recommend this book.


Lori1955 said...

Ok, I just had to laugh that there is actually a book written about a hamburger place. I'm afraid I'm one of the few people who doesn't like In-N-Out burgers.

Frankly I think it would be extremely difficult to mix family and business. It seems that family on it's own is hard enough to deal with. My hat is off to anyone who can sucessfully merge the two.

~Betsy said...

Family businesses can be tricky, but not all that difficult if everyone keeps their priorities in order. It sounds to me as if you have kept a good handle on it.

I have never heard of In-N-Out hamburgers, but that's probably because I'm from Pittsburgh and have only been to California once.