What is conservatism? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. In our confused American moment, knowing what conservatism is and what it isn’t will help us find clarity, invite sanity back into the public square, and give us a better chance to cure what ills our United States.
If you’re hungry as you read this, all the better. Because I’m not here to lecture you on the definition of conservatism. I’m inviting you to actually taste it. On a recent road trip to California, I stopped for dinner at the most northern In-N-Out Burger restaurant in America in Keizer, Oregon. As I ate, I realized I was experiencing a living, breathing, intensely popular American conservatism in action. It wasn’t just a meal – it was a primer in what it looks like to conserve worthy goals, methods, and values. Order some food, pull up a chair, and let me show you how.
First, In-N-Out Burger conserves worthy goals. When Harry and Esther Snyder created the first In-N-Out Burger in 1948, they combined the innovative new idea of a drive-thru with the old-fashioned ideas of superior quality and service. In doing this they were catering to two conditions American thinker Russell Kirk considers necessary for the healthy functioning of any society: the impulse to improve as well as the impulse to conserve. In-N-Out’s singular priority has always been the customer. New managers receive consistent training in this philosophy at the company’s headquarters, ensuring that all 385 In-N-Out locations have the same goal: a satisfying dining experience for every customer.
To that end, one of the first things you notice about In-N-Out restaurants is a clean, bright, inviting environment outside and inside. The second thing you notice is a simple, straightforward menu. There’s no reason for decision fatigue and little possibility that the number of your favorite combo has changed since your last visit.
You’ll also notice the friendliness and helpfulness of the associates. Dressed to impress in distinctive red and white, team members demonstrate unity in their uniform appearance. You won’t be distracted by statement-making t-shirts, inappropriate tattoos, or unkempt hair, for example. You’re also highly likely to enjoy a smile when you step up to the counter, as well as when you’re served your food and perhaps even during your meal. In today’s screen-saturated age, good customer service has become somewhat of a rarity, so it’s especially appealing to interact with young workers who have an attitude of gratefulness and cheerfulness as they go about their work.
While other fast food restaurants may have sacrificed superior quality and service in the name of profits, In-N-Out Burger leads the way in conserving those goals. It’s one reason they were voted makers of ‘the best fast-food burger in America’ in a 2022 restaurant survey, leading in almost every category including food quality, staff friendliness, cleanliness, atmosphere, and healthy food options.
The second thing In-N-Out Burger successfully conserves are worthy methods. While some competitors perfect their fries in a science lab and take advantage of the latest artificial methods of cooking and processing, In-N-Out takes pride in being different. Burgers are made from fresh beef. Buns are made the old-fashioned way from real sponge dough with no preservatives. Associates hand-leaf lettuce every day and cook fries the same way they did in the 1940s: with fresh potatoes in 100% sunflower oil.
In-N-Out Burger is so committed to freshness, they won’t build a restaurant more than a day’s journey away from their own family-owned facilities. And being conservative does not have to mean being tone-deaf to current needs. For example, many restaurants today find ways to cater to common allergens, and In-N-Out Burger is no exception. Those with a gluten sensitivity, or who wish to reduce the overall calories of their meal, can order their burger “protein-style” – sandwiched between fresh leaves of lettuce.
In-N-Out’s embrace of traditional methods is not a lack of imagination or an unwillingness to keep up with modernity. It’s merely the recognition that these traditional techniques of making food are, in fact, the best ways.
A third thing In-N-Out Burger conserves are good values. Underneath their cups, fry boats, and wrappers, the company prints scripture references. Not the whole text of verses — simply the book, chapter, and verse. On the soda cup you’ll find John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” On the wrapper for their famous Double-Double burger, you’ll notice Nahum 1:7 and the reminder that the Lord is “a stronghold in the day of trouble.” The subtle family touch began in the 1980s with Richard Snyder, son of the founders, and has been expanded by granddaughter and current CEO Lynsi Snyder.
The practice is a nod to the Judeo-Christian faith tradition that undergirds America’s founding. It’s a rare acknowledgment from a successful American company that there’s something even greater than profit or even a tasty hamburger, something we can trust even in difficult or confused times. Conservatism has been described as an inclination to cherish the permanent things. Timeless Bible verses printed on disposable cups and wrappers bound for the garbage can are a small but effective reminder of such lasting ideas. They remind us that the grass withers and the flowers fade, but some things endure.
In today’s charged political climate, the definition of conservatism is up for grabs. “What do self-described conservatives stand for in 2023?” asks NPR in a recent headline, while Bloomberg declares “American and British Conservatives Are Frozen in Failure.” Although many of our political and cultural battles are rooted in the current moment, conservatism calls us to go deeper: to be stewards of our inheritance and builders of a better future. With its conservation of worthy goals, methods, and values, In-N-Out Burger shows us what a vibrant American conservatism looks like, and it’s delicious!