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In-N-Out’s eastern expansion gets farther from its California roots

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For decades, In-N-Out was an avatar of California cred. Transplants to the East Coast who had grown up devouring its burgers and “animal style” fries spoke wistfully of the fast-food chain back home, and visits to a drive-through were often the first order of business after their planes touched down at LAX.

Even as In-N-Out, which was founded in the Los Angeles suburbs 75 years ago, oozed like its signature special sauce beyond the state’s borders and into Arizona, Nevada and Texas in recent years, it remained a Western brand, and proudly so. “I don’t see us stretched across the whole U.S.,” owner and president Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson said in a 2018 interview, vowing never in her lifetime to expand any farther east than its Texas outposts. “You put us in every state and it takes away some of its luster.”

Just this week, the burger chain’s cultural signpost had a spotlight moment when Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sought in interviews to portray themselves as normie Angelenos commuters who so love their local location that the people there know their order. This was no casual ad-lib — like everything about the couple’s publicity tour to promote their documentary and Harry’s memoir, it was deliberate.

In other words: According to the royal-est of P.R. playbooks, if you want to sound like a regular-degular old Californian, name-check In-N-Out.

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Which is why the news this week that In-N-Out plans to open a corporate headquarters in Tennessee and, eventually, its first locations east of the Mississippi was surprising. The move was greeted with excitement — first from the jubilant governor of Tennessee, who announced the news himself on social media. “It’s a special day today,” Gov. Bill Lee said during a news conference touting the company’s expansion. In addition to the Franklin, Tenn., corporate office, the chain will open several Nashville locations by 2026, the company said.

Many fans were equally enthused. “My state is finally getting In-N-Out,” read one sample tweet. “my Cali heart misses it.” Some faux-lamented its arrival: “getting an IN-N-OUT here in Nashville. And … there goes my summer bod.”

Others, though, worried that the chain could lose its distinct identity as it forges eastward.

“Well there goes the quality and the novelty of only getting it in California,” wrote one commenter on the governor’s Instagram post. “Will it just become another McDonald’s?”

“Serious question: does the allure of In-N-Out diminish if it’s not just out west anymore?” another posted on Twitter. “I was there in the line up the street when Shake Shack opened in Chicago, but I don’t know if I’d [do] the same for In-N-Out when I’ve had it in 3 different states.”

After all, when brands go national, they often get disaggregated from their origin stories — how many tweens in line at any given Starbucks could tell you that the coffee juggernaut was once a Seattle phenomenon?

George Geary, the author of “Made in California: The California-Born Burger Joints, Diners, Fast Food & Restaurants That Changed America,” says he thinks In-N-Out can maintain its brand, so long as it keeps up the quality it is known for (locations often feature visible potato slicers and the chain touts its never-frozen beef). “Everyone thought they would change when they expanded to Arizona and Nevada and Texas, but remarkably they have stayed the same,” he says, noting that the company has said it won’t open a location unless it’s within a 10-hour truck drive from the source of its ingredients. “We’ll have to see.”

The chain also indicated that it plans to open locations in other states, too, further distancing it from its roots. “We get a lot of requests in different states to open, and I’m very happy to meet the customers here and make their dreams come true, and probably [make a] few other states a little upset,” Snyder-Ellingson said at the Tennessee news conference, where she acknowledged that the company’s “map” was changing. “Don’t worry, there’s others that will be included in this plan eventually,” she added.

In-N-Out is quirky in ways many brands with national ambitions aren’t: It serves a relatively tiny menu, it has kept the same signage through its history, and its burger wrappers and drink cups bear the names of biblical passages, a nod to the religious beliefs of the family that founded and still owns the chain. Unlike novelty-happy competitors (we’re looking at you, Taco Bell), In-N-Out rarely tinkers with its lineup.

Much of In-N-Out’s fervent fandom (some refer to it as a “cult”) stems from its secret menu, a not entirely hush-hush variety of customizations that diners can order. For example, while the regular menu lists only single and double burgers, in-the-know customers may order three-by-threes (triple patties) or four-by-fours (quadruple); many take their burgers “mustard grilled,” with a squirt of the zesty condiment griddled into the meat. “Animal style” fries are topped with melted American cheese, grilled onions and the chain’s special sauce.

“It gives it that little bit of mystique,” Geary says. “People can order things the way they like them.”

And of course, the news that there might be a new option for grease-seeking diners predictably sparked a round of the ongoing burger wars, with fans of chains including Five Guys, Shake Shack and Whataburger debating their relative superiority. A common conclusion from East Coasters who haven’t bought into the In-N-Out hype is that it’s overrated. (The fries, which the L.A. Times once rated dead last in its ranking of fast-food spuds, came in for particular drubbing.)

But no matter how far the chain spreads, there’s likely to be an annual reminder of its animal-sauced DNA: “Whenever anyone asks me what restaurant they should go to spot celebrities in L.A.,” Geary says, “I tell them to go to In-N-Out on the night of the Academy Awards.”