Why In-N-Out Burger is So Loved

Quilt.AI
Quilt.AI
Published in
7 min readFeb 9, 2023

--

Brand Insights in Three Sentences: In-N-Out Burger’s brand carries with it a cultural capital that is unmatched in the fast food industry. Consumers appreciate the high standard of consistency and quality provided by the restaurant’s unique operating model, and view the burger chain as a place to treat themselves to a special indulgence. The brand also cultivates a unique Californian image that creates a culture of exclusivity and excitement among their customers, especially since many don’t live close to a location.

On the surface, In-N-Out Burger appears to be like many other fast food chains in the US. It has a drive-thru and a small dining room. Its affordable menu serves a standard selection of burgers, fries, milkshakes, and sodas from the fountain. It’s not the only burger joint to find success in the United States, and definitely not the biggest.

Yet In-N-Out seems to stand apart from its peers. It was recently declared the most popular fast food restaurant in California (its home state), and regularly tops lists of best fast food restaurants in the country. Several famous chefs count themselves among its fans, including Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller — the owner and chef of the three Michelin-starred French Laundry. Anthony Bourdain even called it his “favorite restaurant in LA”, high praise for a three-dollar cheeseburger.

Like any restaurant, In-N-Out’s prominent position has plenty to do with the quality and value of their food. The California-based burger chain has a unique operating model, which focuses on delivering fresh ingredients daily and avoids franchising locations so that every restaurant is held to its lofty standards.

In-N-Out also keeps prices down by owning every location, maintaining a limited menu, and buying their ingredients wholesale. All this while paying their employees better than competitors, landing themselves on Glassdoor’s list of best places to work ahead of companies like Microsoft and Lululemon.

However, In-N-Out’s success goes beyond a good burger at a good price. Something about the cheeseburger vendor conveys immense cultural capital and clout. If it’s status among professional chefs and best-of lists isn’t enough to convince you that this is true, In-N-Out is also incredibly overrepresented on social media:

In-N-Out Burger has fewer locations than any of the other vendors on this chart.

Despite maintaining only a regional presence, In-N-Out Burger absolutely dominates on Instagram, with more than double the posts than any similarly sized chain. It has an even larger footprint on the app than many nationally recognized restaurants like Chik-Fil-A and Wendy’s, and is only outdone by giants like KFC or McDonald’s — a franchise with more than 30 times as many locations as In-N-Out.

So, what can we make of this? What is the In-N-Out experience, and why does it carry so much influence online? Using Sphere’s Customer Experience app, we decided to break down how people enjoy this iconic West Coast eatery with AI-generated data from Twitter. With our results, we hope to provide a few insights into the magic behind this burger’s popularity. Here’s what we found:

Our Customer Experience app found a variety of reactions to In-N-Out Burger, but three stood out from the pack in their representation.

Sharing One’s Satisfaction (39.2%)

It is a credit to any restaurant if people want to share their pleasure with the dining experience. This is more than true at In-N-Out, where nearly 40% of all customer experiences were dedicated to telling Twitter about their positive opinion of the restaurant.

People certainly praise the food and service, but if one thing stands out from this section of customer experiences, it is In-N-Out’s consistency and dependability:

“Over 15 years never have I ever had a bad burger from there”

“I’ve probably made 100+ in n out orders with tons of special modifiers and i have NEVER had an order come out wrong or have something forgotten””

“In-N-Out is good. It’s a lot cheaper than any other burger place. Quality and consistent… You can certainly get a better burger elsewhere but you’ll pay $10+ for it.”

For many consumers, the fast food industry seems to have a reputation for missed orders and unreliable quality. But In-N-Out stands out in this respect — Twitter users hold the restaurant in high regard for its consistent service and quality, especially given the low price point.

The consistent satisfaction that In-N-Out provides is reflected in Sphere’s sentiment analysis of conversations about the vendor:

Self-Indulgence (35.4%)

The love and appreciation for In-N-Out’s quality, affordability, and reliability is undeniable. However, there is also a certain indulgent quality that our AI detected in conversations about the beloved burger establishment.

Users often discuss a meal at In-N-Out Burger as a special occasion. While the context varied from late night snacks to cheat day treats, many felt that these burgers were best enjoyed as pleasurable diversions, rather than regular meals:

“i literally won’t eat at in n out all year but it feels wrong not going after a concert”

“Having the luxury to get In N Out on my cheat days whenever I want is a W”

“First thing I’m doing when I get back to the bay is hitting some In N Out 😩😩”

What’s more, customers with this experience of the restaurant didn’t feel ashamed to eat it alone:

What’s clear is that fans of this iconic fast food brand see In-N-Out as a gift they can give to themselves. While they may not go everyday, the vaunted burger vendor still holds a special place in their hearts as a delicious indulgence.

Complaints (9.7%)

It’s hard to imagine that complaints could bode well for a customer-focused establishment. And while it’s true that a small minority of customers have criticisms of In-N-Out (the fries seem to be a sticking point for some), this customer experience more often revolves around one thing: access.

In-N-Out is a mainstay for burger-lovers in California. However, its 386 nationwide locations only extend as far east as Dallas, Texas. Outside its home state, there is limited availability for In-N-Out in most of America.

The rest of the country still knows and loves the restaurant, though. It is‌ a great accomplishment that a regional restaurant would have national appeal, but it does cause some complaints from fans who aren’t close enough to an In-N-Out location to enjoy it themselves:

“Sad bc I can’t get in n out.”

“‘Big Burger’ is violating my First Amendment rights because there is no In-n-Out where I live. They are, in effect, shadowbanning me by preventing me from exercising my freedom to order from the secret menu!”

“The one thing i miss from before i moved from the western US is In n Out Burger :(“

Even though people have gripes with In-N-Out’s limited availability, in a strange way, these complaints‌ further the cultural prevalence and exclusivity that the brand enjoys. People view the restaurant almost as a must-see vacation destination, or an exclusive locale for eating the best burgers on the west coast. Thrill and Adventure (3.8%) was also highly represented among customer experiences for this exact reason. In-N-Out Burger is an almost mythical right-of-passage — people are thrilled by their first chance to try the legendary sandwich.

In-N-Out’s California image is also vital to this notion of exclusivity and adventure. Our AI found that 80% of customers eat their In-N-Out outdoors, and you only need to look through photos of In-N-Out on Instagram to see how important the sunny, palm tree-laden environment is to customers. Perhaps that’s why the restaurant keeps the iconic palm tree displayed prominently on their cups and outside their locations.

Quilt’s Insights

In-N-Out has cultivated a strong customer experience across the board. Its reliability, quality, and affordability leave customers feeling satisfied. Twitter users like to indulge in an In-N-Out burger and make it a special treat for themselves. And while most of the country doesn’t have access to one of their locations, this helps promote an exclusivity which pervades American culture — especially on Instagram.

However, In-N-Out is expanding eastward to Tennessee over the next few years, marking its first location east of the Mississippi river. As it continues to grow, a new challenge will arrive as In-N-Out works to maintain its quintessential sunny California image.

That said, if the burger chain’s track record shows anything, it is that it values quality, consistency, and professionalism over fast growth. It’ll be hard for the In-N-Out brand to lose it’s grip on American culture as long as it continues its streak of excellence — one which it has already maintained for more than 70 years.

--

--

Quilt.AI
Quilt.AI

We are a culturally rooted, AI powered insights firm that converts millions of data signals into human understanding. Visit us: https://quilt.ai