In the Summer of 1947, Harry Snyder, a World War II veteran and bakery caterer, stumbled into a Seattle restaurant and fell in love with his waitress. Esther, his object of affection, had recently graduated with a degree in zoology, but had always been drawn to the culinary arts. On her break, the two sat together in a diner booth, shared a hamburger, and spoke of their plans to move out to sunny California.
Ten months later, Harry and Esther pooled their resources, migrated to Los Angeles, and opened a little burger joint across the street from Harry’s childhood home. Southern California’s fast food business was burgeoning at the time -- McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. had been inaugurated just a few years earlier -- but the Snyders’ establishment stood out: utilizing a two-way intercom, it was the first “Drive-thru” burger experience in America. In the 65 years since, aptly-named In-N-Out has grown to 290 locations and 18,000 employees.
Today, the chain is beloved for its fresh ingredients, friendly staff, and commitment to customer satisfaction. The Snyders’ original tenet, "Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment,” is still the common core of In-N-Out’s operations today. But discretely hidden on the bottoms of soda cups and french fry wrappers, the company endorses another message -- a message ensconced in Biblical verses.
After Harry Snyder succumbed to lung cancer in 1976, his son, Richard Snyder, became In-N-Out ‘s president and CEO. At the time, due to Harry’s insistence of strict quality control, there were only 18 locations; throughout the 1980s, the franchise saw considerable expansion.
It was during this time, in 1987, that Richard, a born-again Christian, ordered biblical verses be printed on the company’s wrappers and cups. “He told me, ‘It’s just something I want to do,’” a company spokesman recalled of the decision in a 2005 interview, “and that was that.” The verses remained unobtrusively subtle, merely indicated by their book and number (ie. “Proverbs 3:5”), and appeared in four places:
Printed on the company’s soda cup is John 3:16, which reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Milkshake cups feature Proverbs 3:5, which admonishes, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."
The company’s hamburger (and cheeseburger) wrappers don Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
And finally, the company’s famous Double-Double (two patties, two slices of cheese, and 41 grams of fat) houses Nahum 1:7 on its wrapper: "The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him."
While the verses grapple with longevity, trust, obedience, and faith, they all espouse a common message: adhere to God’s word. Shortly after they were printed on In-N-Out’s wares, Richard Snyder felt he had to sermonize this belief a bit more forwardly.
At the time, In-N-Out had a well-known, 30-second jingle (“In-N-Out: that’s what a hamburger’s all about!”) that aired on California radio stations. On Christmas eve, 1987, Snyder decided to switch things up, despite many people in the company advising him against it. The same familiar melody played, but a solemn question replaced the words -- “wouldn’t you like salvation in your life?” -- followed by In-N-Out’s endorsement. While the campaign stirred some controversy, it was never Snyder’s intention to offend: according to one journalist, “If he went up to Heaven and saw Jesus, he didn’t want [Jesus] to think he’d been too afraid of what people might think not to [spread his word].”
To this day, each Christmas, several radio stations in Los Angeles country still play the modified advertisement.
In-N-Out hasn’t been the only company to disregard the separation of church and plate. In 2005, Starbucks ran a campaign, “The Way I See It,” which culled 63 quotes from influential people to feature on their cups. One of them, from “mega-church pastor” and evangelist, Rick Warren, made no qualms about hiding its religious message. “You were made by God and for God,” it read, “and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny." While Starbucks didn’t endorse any of the quotes on their cups, other companies have openly professed their religious affiliations.
Texas-based Interstate Batteries, for instance, maintains a mission statement of “striving to glorify God as we supply our customers worldwide with top quality value-priced batteries.” Its chairman, Norm Miller, has promoted his car batteries with a series of commercials in which aimless, depressed people are brought to life through God’s love. Craft chain Hobby Lobby plays only contemporary Christian music in its stores, and, until 2012, Alaska Airlines served prayer cards with every hot meal.
Don Chang, founder of popular clothing chain Forever 21, was directly inspired by In-N-Out, and now stamps the John 3:16 verse at the bottom of every shopping bag -- something he cites as “evidence of faith.”
In 1993, Richard Snyder died in a plane crash, with his minister by his side -- but the company chose to keep the verses as a personal homage. “After he passed, we kept on doing it out of respect for him,” Dean Atkins, a regional manager for In-N-Out, later told the Gilroy Dispatch. “It was just something he wanted to do." And that’s really all that matters: The Synder family privately owns the company and has complete discretion when it comes to mingling religion and food. In-N-Out’s present-day owner, protestant/rally car driver Lynsi Snyder, has no plans to remove the verses -- and no need to answer to shareholders.
Nonetheless, the burger joint’s proffering doesn’t come without a backlash. "I believe in a separation between church and food," boycotter Chloe Etienne told California's Contra Costa Times. “I love the food” writes another conflicted eater. “but to be subtly fed religious babble with my burger is enough to make me say ‘no.’”
Most though, don’t seem bothered enough by the Biblical lines to stop eating there. According to sociologist David Halle, Americans have, over time, become more accepting of religiosity, and companies have found ways to incorporate it with a “light touch,” so as not to turn off unbelieving customers. For In-N-Out enthusiasts, this seems to hold true.
“It could be worse,” jokes one regular. “They could’ve called the company Jesus Burger. Or Christian Patties, Inc. Even if they did, what do I care? Those fries are delicious.”