Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

There's a McDonald's just a couple of miles from my house.

It seems to do some business through the drive-thru, but not so much inside the restaurant.

I fear there might be a reason.

A few hundred yards away, there's an In-N-Out. Now that place is always, always packed.

I don't think I've ever been there when the line wasn't out of the door.

Why would that be? It's not as if In-N-Out offers customers more. Food-wise, that is.

There's far more of a choice at McDonald's. And McDonald's has Happy Meals, while In-N-Out offers Animal Style. 

Yet there's a far greater emotional commitment from customers of In-N-Out.

A Forbes interview with In-N-Out's president Lynsi Snyder offered a few hints for why this might be.

Many will immediately gravitate to the notion that In-N-Out is what they call a cult brand.

One of those In-Crowdy, Emperor's New Wardrobe sort of places. 

There's a whiff of that, of course.

Snyder, though, focuses on her core product and isn't so fond of offering customers an infinity of choices. She said:

It's not [about] adding new products. Or thinking of the next bacon-wrapped this or that. We're making the same burger, the same fry. We're really picky and strategic. We're not going to compromise.

She showed that recently when the chain shut down 37 restaurants because management wasn't happy with the buns that had been delivered.

Customers feel that pickiness. They themselves showed they're not prepared to compromise when a very brief controversy arose after In-N-Out donated to the California Republican Party

Did it affect business? Not at my local In-N-Out.

And in my part of northern California, being a Republican is like being a Satanist in the south.  

It's easy, though, to conclude that the chain's lack of compromise over food quality -- In-N-Out grinds its own fresh beef and never freezes it -- is the thing that sets it apart from the likes of McDonald's.

For me, however, Snyder revealed another, even more powerful element: the way In-N-Out is run.

You can be a cult, but you can also be managed like the village fete. 

Worse, cult brands sometimes sell out, take the money and leave the cult in the hands of  America's most rapacious.

At In-N-Out, however, there's a different attitude.

Every single restaurant is owned by the company. 

Which means every single employee knows exactly who they're working for.

There are no franchisees making employees feel like they work for the local (low-paying) car dealer. 

Moreover, there's no obsession over being the biggest.

Americans have always believed that biggest is best. Whether it's the food on a plate or the size of a mouth.

Yet Snyder sees herself as the guardian of a legacy that her grandparents created in 1948.

Which means that she grew up knowing and appreciating that In-N-Out has a certain sort of relationship with its customers.

They know the quality won't diminish and the chain won't rip them off. Each strategic decision -- such as owning most of the buildings in which the restaurants are located -- keeps costs down.

Customers also know -- because they may even know someone who works there -- that In-N-Out pays its employees very well. 

Better than McDonald's. Hourly employees can make $3 or $4 an hour more than at your average, everywhere burger joint.

And, as my colleague Bill Murphy Jr. reported earlier this year, managers at In-N-Out make $160,000 a year. 

Working for In-N-Out might be a vacation job. It might also be a rather fine career.

Ultimately, Snyder knows that she and her management team can make strategic choices and all her staff will follow. As she explained her ambitions to Forbes: 

I don't see us stretched across the whole U.S. I don't see us in every state. Take Texas -- draw a line up and just stick to the left. That's in my lifetime.

(She's 36.)

I know quite a few people who'd like to take Texas, draw a line up and just stick to the left. Well, some might leave Texas to the right.

Snyder, though, unlike so many corporate leaders, understands and enjoys the fact that In-N-Out isn't big like McDonald's, Burger King or Starbucks.

It has cachet, while they have cash cows.

It talks like a restaurant, while they talk like a chain.

In the end, Snyder and her team get emotional satisfaction, partly -- or, dare I say, mostly -- because they're not being dictated to by fast-talking, greasy Wall Street types whose only pleasures are dollars and overpriced steak houses.

Think Big is such a terrible motto for leaders.

Think Yours is surely far more enjoyable. 

Published on: Oct 11, 2018