My colleague Dennis Green is baffled that Californians continue to believe that In-N-Out makes a great burger.
“What is it that would keep me coming back to In-N-Out when there are objectively (in my mind) better options?” Dennis wrote.
Dennis brilliantly and comprehensively pitted In-N-Out against Shake Shack and thought the Shack won by a considerable margin, so he can back up his view that In-N-Out is overrated.
But as much as he’s right about the scarcity and bandwagon effects, the real reason that In-N-Out is so beloved by Californians is that, for them, the burgers and the fries and the shakes — but especially the burgers — represent a state of mind.
I lived in LA for ten years, and during that time, I ate many In-N-Out Double Doubles. My wife also ate many burgers. My children ate many burgers. Our friends and neighbours ate many burgers.
Over time, In-N-Out came to mean far more than a just-OK burger. And Dennis is right, it is merely OK. Objectively, Shake Shack is better — but although the Shack makes a nice burger, very tasty, I can’t see it as anything other than a pretentious In-N-Out ripoff. I went once. I have no burning desire to go back.
Shake Shake doesn’t put me in a special state of mind. And that matters for the West Coast In-N-Out regulars who grew up with the chain. A lot of Californians who can’t get In-N-Out anymore, due to the scarcity effect that Dennis mentions, make the chain their first stop when they get back for a visit.
The plane lands, and as soon as they can, they head for the nearest In-N-Out.
If not, they make sure to grab a burger before they leave. When my daughter, who lived in LA from age 2, missed out on her In-N-Out after a visit — was cheated of her Proustian madeleine, crafted of beef and cheese and bread — she complained for a year. Both my sons are native Californians and for them, not having regular access to In-N-Out is like have a tiny hole carved in their little hearts.
You sometimes hear similar stories about other products that aren’t examples of pure excellence. I knew a guy who would always drink a Coke in France whenever he got homesick. Australians can’t live without a periodic hit of Vegemite.
So Californians — even adopted ones — aren’t at all embarrassed by their allegiance to a burger that can’t stack up against the best the fast-food New York culinary-industrial complex has to offer. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good. Because it tastes like home.
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