Standardization, superior service, and smiles are a winning formula to keep customers coming back.

It’s a rare treat these days, that my family and I get to enjoy fast food. In fact, the only time we ever really eat fast food these days is when we drive to California, Las Vegas, or some other southwest destination, which typically means we’re driving. Tonight we delighted in burgers and fries, but no shakes, from In-N-Out Burger. Why you ask, since it wasn’t a road trip? Well, I guess we got tired of cooking something almost every day for the last 45 days. And believe me when I tell you, you should have seen the smiles from ear to ear and the eyes light up like Christmas trees when I mentioned this storied California burger joint to my family, including me!

Now it’s not like we haven’t eaten there before, but I must admit, I was once again impressed beyond expectations, as we typically have been whenever we’ve dined there previously. I guess in light of the craziness of COVID-19 and the economic shutdown, their winning formula for customer satisfaction and business success was on full display and as fresh as can be, when everything else these days is perceived as being contaminated.

Here’s tonight’s interaction: I was greeted by an incredibly pleasant greeter on the drive-thru line whose smile came through her professional and well-donned face mask, maintaining at least a 6’ space between us, proudly displaying their menu on the flip side of the IPAD they used to take customer orders. I ordered a combination of burgers and fries with some special requests, all of which were granted without hesitation. She confirmed the order back to me using perfect 3-way communication, communicated the total cost, and asked me to proceed to the first window for payment. Upon my arrival at this window, another pleasant fellow wearing a well-fitted face mask, greeted me, confirmed my order again using perfect three-way communication, which I confirmed, held the credit card machine extended in both hands allowing me to insert my credit card into the machine without handing him my card or making any inadvertent contact with his person. He provided my receipt and asked me to proceed to the pick-up window. Upon arrival at the pick-up window, I was again greeted by a young fellow whose smile shown through his face mask, where he confirmed my order using perfect three-way communication (three times?…this is unfreakin’ believable!), told me exactly what was in each of the two bags he handed me, and wished me a pleasant evening. I couldn’t help but say to him and his colleague through the window, “you guys do a really great job.” His smile became so wide it almost extended beyond the ends of his face mask as he replied with a hearty “thank you!”

Okay, I know I went on and on, but didn’t you get the same feeling I did? This is not a common experience today by any means. These were all young adults that genuinely looked happy working serving others, not those fake, phony lines of those who struggle through being nice to customers. Look, it’s no secret that In-N-Out Burger’s reputation of quality, freshness, and high customer service standards make it stand out from the pack of fast food chains. Hmmm…there’s one of the keys to success again – high standards. How about the simplicity of their menu – burger, fries, and sodas/shakes (with some variations) – a few core items that all employees know and in short order, master. Did you know that they pre-make the burger patties for efficiency, but the fries are cut on site fresh, any wilting or browning lettuce gets tossed, and bruised tomatoes are discarded? By the way, we got take out from Mastro’s Steakhouse a couple of weeks ago, who could be considered at the opposite end of the spectrum of restaurants in terms of gourmet dining and food quality, and the lettuce was wilted and brown. This really pissed off my wife…but I digress. Did you also know that they aren’t franchised, that they are privately owned by the original owners, the Snyder family? Standardization, wow! Amazing how a formula of standardization would ensure a superior level of customer service no matter which store you visit.

Did you also know that their employees get paid more than minimum wage, and generally higher than market wages for all levels of positions? What about perks like tickets to amusement parks and really nice vacations for managers that hit their targets? Did I mention that the employees seem genuinely happy to be working there?
Now if you’re thinking you might apply for a store managers job, think again. They don’t hire management from the outside, only promoting from within. In fact, you have to start at the entry level service position and work your way up. Talk about learning the job from the ground up and earning your way to a promotion!

Okay, one last characteristic that makes them odd compared to their peers – they’ve managed their growth appropriately. They opened in Los Angeles in 1948, had primarily a California presence for decades, and have slowly expanded to over 300 stores as far as Oregon to the north and Texas to the east. They didn’t grow too fast for their own good, rather they managed their growth because they could, and weren’t pressured by the interests of public company boards and investors. Now look, I know it’s only fast food, but it was Anthony Bourdain’s favorite restaurant whenever he visited LA! And although we only enjoy fast food rarely these days, In-N-Out Burger is a breath of fresh air in a sea of wanna be competitors.

Ownership, accountability, standardization, incentives – they all work to make this and other businesses, highly successful. If my experience tonight made me sit down to write about it a couple of hours later, it tells me that it’s these simple acts of kindness – another human being offering a smile, providing a valuable service, acting with purpose, and holding a high standard – that makes a day worthwhile.