Then, slowly, the crushing realisation dawned on us: we were the fanboys.
For the small corner of the internet that we contribute to, this is about as big as it gets.
But this was a day that many had only dreamed of, few had genuinely anticipated and hardly anyone was actually prepared for. We’ve all seen the reports of the fabled In-n-Out Burger popups in various parts of Asia. We’ve whined about it. We’ve even set up petitions begging for them to do one in Europe. We’ve even improved our own local fare to prove that there’s a ravenous appetite for burgers these days. But we never thought it would actually happen.
No fucking way is this legit. No way. Who the fuck is pulling a faux-stunt like this?
Internet murmurs and denouncements continued until Monday night, when Chelsea season ticker holder @ibzo posted the advert that had been placed in his scurrilous local rag, The Finchley Times. Swayed but not convinced, calls of bullshit continued to echo around Twitter. Anyone could have ‘shopped that together.
We started tracking down all the details of previous In-n-Out pop ups. We even called the customer service line in the States. We were not the first. Sara, with her alluring California twang, had clearly been called a bunch of times and gave us a confirmation with an All-American exasperated bubbly demeanour.
It was on. We knew there would be wristbands entitling each entrant to one sole burger, no more. We also knew from previous events, capacity would be around 300 or so burgers. There was no way we were going to miss out on this, so we would get there early.
We got up earlier than we would to go to actual work.
Walking up to the cafe just before 9.30, the inklings of doubt, the suspicions of being duped, evaporated as we peered in: the In-n-Out sign draped over the counter, white-uniformed workers pottering around inside.
It was real.
We stood chatting to the proud grinning cafe owner standing outside smoking, telling everyone who would listen about the world famous burger chain in his restaurant, as we took some awful grainy pictures through the window.
We were also bemused. No one was here yet. Surely there should be burger fanboys and girls here? It seemed inconveivable that there wasn’t already a queue. Then, slowly, the crushing realisation dawned on us: we were the fanboys. We were so excited at the prospect of local In-n-Out, that all cognitive sense and reason had abandoned us. All the times we had mocked the weirdos camped out waiting for new iPhones were coming back to bite us in the topside.
And it turns out that we Londoners are cynical fuckers: In-n-Out did no marketing or promotion, so we didn’t care, but more on that later.
We’ve been struggling to think of a comparison for this. Hendon is So Very North London Suburb. It has charity shops and caffs, and a really pretty neo-Georgian Tube station. It’s a world away from the typical In-n-Out environment: a West Hollywood Drive Thru, a dusty freeway somewhere in Arizona or a sunny palm-lined pocket of Southern California. And if you strip away everything that makes In-n-Out what it is, how does it fare? Often those sandwiches are eaten in a state of dazed euphoria: the thrill of ‘unlocking’ the secret menu, being able to see them make it on the grill, the perma-smiling identikit staff in head-to-toe white Dickies workwear. It’s so far away from somewhere like Hendon.
So there’s a contextual weirdness to this. It’s very much the right food in the wrong place. All of the queue seemed to agree, while the rest of the internet were still unconvinced that this was the real deal.
But back to that lack of promotion.
The moaning began way before 9am. The five distinct stages of grief were on digital display in our Twitter Feed and in the multiple IM conversations pinging around the offices of London.
- It’s not happening. It must be fake.
- I’m so angry I’m stuck at work, and that those fuckers didn’t tell us about this sooner.
- Maybe I can rearrange all these meetings or just skip uni.
Equal parts infuriating and strangely satisfying was that In-n-Out eschewed the traditional food PR machine. No releases went out. There was no press coverage (beyond the mysterious ad in the Finchley local rag). No TV crews. Not even a proper link for people to check the details.
Those who are used to things plopping into their inbox were the loudest of whiners, unable to skip out of their day jobs for a three hour middle-of-the-day adventure to the northerliest part of the Northern line. Noses were put of joint.
The crowd were the lucky few made up of freelancers, the unemployed, office shirkers, shift workers, those who were “working from home”, musicians, street food entrepreneurs, and even a few uncomprehending passers by. And we all shared that energy of experiencing something unique and short-lived. A bit like a one-off gig really in a very random, very tiny, barely appropriate venue.
We can only really applaud them for that.
You know by now that the menu was shortened with a strict per person limit. Despite a cheeky grin and asking for a four by four, we were met with a slight wince and a heartfelt apology. So the only real choice given the limitations was to order the Double Double Animal Style. Now, it’s true that they were using Warburton’s buns that Rob discovered last year when conducting his burger-for-a-pound experiments. All the perishables were sourced locally, which we wish we hadn’t known really, because we were almost seeking out ways to fault it.
The contrary turned out to be the case. Knowing this really helped us zero in on what makes it such an iconic and difficult to replicate burger.
From it’s arrival side-up and nestled in it’s own little packet, to the instantly distinguishable potent beefy-oniony aroma, to the delightfully sweet combination of the slow-cooked onion gloop and tangy Spread going fist-to-fist with the savoury meat and salty cheese, to the mound of lettuce, to the oniony-cheese mess left on the greaseproof paper that you’d scrape off with a rogue fry if you had one.
It was an In-n-Out burger.
Every memory of eating a Double Double came flashing back. It was emotional.
The weirdness of eating this burger in London demonstrates that the real star of the show is the infamous “Spread®” combined with the very finely chopped and carefully caramelised onions. The intermingling of the two is what dominates the tasty recall of all those trips out West.
In many burgers, the typical problem with mayo-based sauces is the heat of the patty splitting them and making them all runny and gross. The In-n-Out spread has a special (undoubtedly scientific) quality that once the heat of the meat and onions hits it, the whole thing is elevated to a new level. It’s proper sandwich genius.
But the real marketing smarts come from that side-on presentation. You can see the whole thing before you’ve eaten it, marvelling at its cosy, familiar construction. It’s a trick that we’re surprised not to see replicated by the MeatEntrepreneurs of London more often. That tantalising side-boob view combined with the other crucial import - the packaging (more specifically the wrapper and greaseproof paper) made it as genuine as we could have wished for.
If only we could have had seconds.
A Fast Food Fever Dream
Since that day, there’s been an air of melancholy at B/A HQ.
We feel a bit used. It’s all gone a bit one night stand.
They flew over, serviced us better than we could ever have believed, and by the time we woke up the following morning, they’ve scurried off back to Heathrow without even leaving a note on the pillow.
And from now on, the rumour mill will continue to run. There will always be chatter about the next popup, or the ever increasing likelihood of there being a proper In-n-Out in London.
Sadly, she’ll always live on the West Coast and we will continue our holiday romances, knowing that she’s always there and pleased to see us when we visit.
Brian, the perma-beaming team leader from the generously-avenued Irvine, CA, floated around inside the cafe and out along the queue, generally seeing how everyone was and answering questions. He was part of a five strong team whose task was specifically to go around the world doing these promotional events; gauging interest and response. It was overheard that the next country on the list was Germany. When chatting with fellow countrymen lamenting the dearth of US fast food outlets, he cheerily pointed out that “at least you’ve got a Subway”, walking back inside with a wry smile.
The cheeky git.
And those of us who did get that little London taste will always be happy to share and remember that story. What a Tuesday, eh? Crikey.
- Simon & Rob.
Thanks to Mike for this photo.