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The Triumph and Tragedy of In-N-Out’s First Family

In n' Out Meares (4)
Replica of the first In-N-Out Burger || Photo by: Hadley Meares

Today, the heart of In-N-Out Burger is still located in the same one-mile radius in Baldwin Park where the iconic restaurant began almost seventy years ago.  A Mediterranean-style office complex dominates the appropriately named Hamburger Lane. In-N-Out University, where the company’s managers are trained, stands in all its middle-class American glory in a parking lot next to the company store and a shiny In-N-Out Burger, which serves its legendary burgers and shakes to hungry Baldwin Park residents. The 10 Freeway, emblematic of the car culture that helped fast food restaurants flourish, looms overhead. On the other side of the freeway is a charming replica of the first, tiny In-N-Out Burger, started by a young couple in love during the post-war L.A. County boom, when anything and everything seemed possible.

They met cute in September 1947. Esther Johnson, a shy and smart recent college graduate and WWII WAVES veteran, was working as a manager at a restaurant at the Fort Lawton Base in Seattle, Washington. Harry Snyder, a tall, former serviceman who had spent much of his life in the food service industry, came to deliver boxes of sandwiches to Esther’s restaurant. They soon married, and in early 1948 they took off for Southern California. According to journalist Stacy Perman, the two were a match made in heaven:  

The Synders settled in Baldwin Park, a young, lively, rural village in the San Gabriel Valley, filled with cattle ranches, family-friendly trailer parks and small GI houses. The dream for In-N-Out was Harry’s, who believed that what busy, modern Americans needed was a “place people can get their sandwiches and go.” On October 22, 1948, the newlyweds opened their first In-N-Out Burger, featuring a simple menu of burgers, french fries and soft drinks. At the beginning, Esther and Harry were the only employees. He cooked the food, she kept the books. Decades later, Esther recalled in her understated way, that “many, cold, smoggy nights were spent during the first few months of operation, but it was worthwhile.”

In n' Out Meal
Classic cheeseburger and fries || Photo by: Wendy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The stand was an immediate hit. Perman estimates that in their first month the Snyders sold around two thousand hamburgers. From the start, In-N-Out was different from its competitors in the nascent fast food industry. Harry abhorred cheap food.  He “wanted to take the lettuce off the ground, the tomato off the vine and the onion and prepare the burger fresh right now,” his nephew Bob Meserve recalled. “That was his goal.”

“Mr. Snyder stressed quality from the first day he opened for business,” Esther remembered, “no matter the price, he believed that the customer deserved the best product they could produce.” Unlike most service industry establishments, the Snyders valued the employees they began to hire, and treated them like family. Many of these early employees would stay at In-N-Out for their entire careers. The small stand also featured what many believe to be the first automatic ordering system a two-way speaker box at the front of the gravel drive-thru.

In n' Out Meares
The first automatic ordering system- a two-way speaker box || Photo by: Hadley Meares

The 1950s was a time of personal and professional expansion for the Snyders. In 1951, they opened their second location in Covina, and also had their first son, Guy. A year later, Esther gave birth to a second son, Rich. The boys, polar opposites almost from the start, would grow up helping at their parents’ restaurants, and at the Irwindale Raceway, which Harry would own a stake in for a number of years. The family soon relocated to the upper-middle class enclave of San Dimas, but they were still very active in the Baldwin Park community. In-N-Out expanded slowly, since the Snyders refused to buy anything on credit or to franchise, and only opened in carefully picked locations, in what we now might term “bedroom communities.”

In-N-Out Burger’s cachet grew throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. The original Baldwin Park store became a destination for celebrities like Lucille Ball and Bob Hope when travelling from Los Angeles to their second homes in Palm Springs. During the ‘50s, the hot-rod youth culture made In-N-Out Burger one of their primary hangouts, while the surfers ruled during the 1960s. By the time Harry died of lung cancer in 1976, there were 18 In-N-Out Burgers spread all across the Southland. The company’s mystique was increased by their secrecy--the Snyders eschewed publicity and hardly ever gave interviews or released financial information--a practice that continues to this day.

In n' Out Ad
In-N-Out ad from Autoclub magazine || Photo by: Jen/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The question of inheritance was a tricky one for the Snyder family. Rich, the younger son, was the clear heir apparent. “Rich was the corporate type and Guy was the wild one,” one friend explained. His parents’ clear favorite, Rich was a friendly, upright, deeply conservative young man. He had started helping with the company finances at 17, often telling friends that he couldn’t go out because he was “doing the books.” Guy, on the other hand, was the rebel obsessed with racing and struggling with a drug problem that spiraled out of control after a terrible motorcycle crash in the mid-70s. And so, in an expected move that would set up a complicated family dynamic for the rest of their short lives, 24-year-old Rich became president of In-N-Out. Esther (still the controlling shareholder) became the secretary-treasurer, and Guy was thrown a bone, with the title of executive vice-president.

Until his death in 1993, Rich would continue to honor his parents’ ethical values while pushing for greater expansion.  “Rich was shrewder as a business person,” Meserve recalled. “Harry was old school and Richard was new school. Rich had vision. He knew what he wanted to accomplish.” Rich built the new executive complex in Baldwin Park, and eventually moved some of the corporate offices to his adopted hometown of Irvine, in Orange County. A devoted born-again Christian, it was Rich who decided to add the Bible verses to the chain’s cups and burger wrappers. “Hamburgers are so popular,” his pastor at the Calvary Chapel explained. “He thought it was a great way to awaken people to the fact that the Bible is relevant and has the answers for today’s problems.” He also relied heavily on his wise mother, who referred to company executives as “my boys” and continued to show up to headquarters at 7:30am every day.

In n' Out Bible Verse
Bible verse found on the bottom of an In-N-Out cup || Photo by: Sascha Pohflepp/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In 1992, In-N-Out Burger celebrated the opening of their 80th location in Las Vegas. A year later, tragedy struck. On December 15, 1993, the newly married Rich was killed when his private plane crashed during descent into John Wayne Airport. His right-hand man Phil West was also killed, along with three other men. The company was devastated, although in true In-N-Out fashion, they only released this understated tribute;

Only the day before, Rich had been in Northern California to see his ten-year-old niece Lynsi perform in a pageant. While at the pageant, he had talked to his brother, Guy, with whom he had barely been on speaking terms for many years. Prophetically he tried to make peace with his older brother, telling Guy, “We might not see each other again. You’re my brother, and I love you.”

In n' Out Las Vegas
In-N-Out, Las Vegas || Photo by: Dan Nguyen/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Now Guy and his small daughter, Lynsi, were the only two heirs left. Guy, whose addiction now ran rampant, was named “Chairman” of the company, while Esther became president. Lynsi continued to attend the private Christian school her parents had founded for her in Northern California, rarely allowed to see the troubled father she adored. “I was a daddy’s girl,” she said recently. “Because of my dad’s struggle with addiction, I have a great love for addicts.”

As Guy’s addictions deepened, he would often hole up in his old motor home trailer, which was parked inside a seldom-used In-N-Out warehouse in Baldwin Park. Day to day operations were handled by Esther and her “boys,” and the company’s expansion continued unabated. By 1997, In-N-Out boasted 124 locations. In 1999, Guy Snyder died of an accidental drug overdose. At 79, Esther Snyder had lost both of her children, and had a growing empire to run and one grandchild on which to place the burden of the In-N-Out legacy.

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The next decade would be internally devastating to In-N-Out. Lynsi, who married her first husband soon after finishing high school, was included more in day-to-day operations at In-N-Out, much to the wary old guard’s chagrin. “I’m a lot like my dad, a bit of a daredevil. I like an adrenaline rush,” she said in a recent interview. “My dad took me to the racetrack for the first time when I was 2 or 3…Anything with a motor, that was in my blood.”

The internal divisions within the company turned nasty in 2006, when longtime vice president Richard Boyd sued In-N-Out for “breach of contract, tortuous interference with contract and defamation.” He claimed Lynsi and her second husband were attempting to wrestle control away from the elderly Esther, and had forced employees to attend Bible studies and pray at meetings. In-N-Out immediately countersued.

In heartbreaking tapes that were released during the scandal, a befuddled Esther, who saw her work family crumbling, told Boyd’s wife, “I think they’re taking all my friends away from me.” In the end, the matter was privately resolved, and Boyd left the company after over twenty years. "By far the most upsetting is his fabrication about the relationship between me and my gramma," Lynsi stated at the time. "Plain and simple, I love and respect my gram so much and am deeply upset by the pain that Mr. Boyd's lawsuit has caused my family and me."

In n' Out Stores Map
 Counties with In-N-Out locations || Map by: Szyslak/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License

Esther died later that year, leaving 24-year-old Lynsi in charge of the billion dollar company. In the past decade rifts have appeared to heal at In-N-Out Burger, and the old guard has merged with the new. The family-owned, privately held chain has expanded to 310 stores across the Southwest. Lynsi continues to be a mystery. She rarely grants interviews and keeps out of the spotlight-due in part to two kidnapping attempts she claims to have survived as a young adult.

Lynsi plans to keep In-N-Out in the family. She recently said that she would never franchise the chain or take it public. "The only reason we would do that is for the money, and I wouldn't do it," she said. "My heart is totally connected to this company because of my family, and the fact that they are not here--I have a strong tie to keep this the way they would want it."

 

Further Reading: 

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

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