I host a sports talk show for a living, four hours a day, five days a week. That's a lot of air time to fill, so you can imagine the number of hotly debated topics that arise during a regular twenty hour broadcast week. Just over the last few weeks on our show, we've seen John Harris and Richard Justice almost come to blows over a TCU vs Texas debate that admittedly I started; Kyle Shanahan's play calling incite riots, and Tiger Woods make life just a bit more uncomfortable for married men who like to play golf.
However, since we started the show in 2007, the easiest topic to bring up in order to ignite a brushfire of debate is....wait for it....hamburgers! As it turns out, people are far more parochial about a slab of meat adorned in cheese all on a tasty roll than they are their respective alma maters or sports heroes. Go figure.
For most of our listeners, their families could be trapped in a burning house, and God forbid someone whisper in their ear at that very moment that the A-1 Thick & Hearty Burger was overrated, because if they are a Whataburger fan, it's GO TIME and their family better get used to living life extra crispy.
The Great Houston Burger Debate has many local, single-site players -- Christian's Tailgate, Hubcap Grill, Lankford Grocery, to name a few (and I must say, the new burgers on the menu at Nick's Place are fabulous). However, when the topic of debate becomes which regional/national chain has the best burger, it becomes a two horse race --- Whataburger versus In-N-Out Burger. It's the 2006 Rose Bowl all over again, complete with the orange-clad Texas team (Whataburger) taking on the glitzy red, yellow and white of the West Coast (In-N-Out).
People in Houston swear by Whataburger to the point where it may as well be the fourth major sports franchise in town. If you bring up In-N-Out Burger as a superior product, many of them blanket dismiss it. The funny thing is that many of these same Houstonians have never even had In N Out Burger. If you've made it this far in this blog post, then you know that In N Out is a regional chain, confined (some like me would argue, tragically so) to California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. So to many around here, In-N-Out Burger is somewhat of a mythological creature that they refuse to believe can defeat their local hero -- the Whataburger.
It's a little like old-school pro wrestling (and yes, I can compare ANYTHING to pro wrestling) -- back in the day, wrestling was divided into a bunch of regions. Some of the biggest stars back then, if you lived, say, in the Northeast, you only HEARD about them because they wrestled in another part of the country exclusively. You didn't get to see them wrestle. I grew up in Connecticut, and for the longest time had only heard about how great Ric Flair was, because Flair wrestled largely in the south back then. Ultimately, through the magic of video tapes and cable TV, I finally got to see what everyone was so stoked about when it came to Flair.
To Houstonians, the In-N-Out Burger is Ric Flair to me back in 1981. You've heard that it's good from people who've experienced it, you think your guy (say, Hulk Hogan) is better, and now you want to see what all the Flair hype is about. (If you're now totally lost, trust me, wrestling fans are nodding their heads.) I have had the good fortune of traveling all over the country the last ten years in my pre-radio line of work, including many a trip to California. I've had In-N-Out Burger. Lots of In-N-Out Burger. Lots...and lots...and lo -- well hell, just look at me!
Why am I writing about this? Well because the rumors are beginning to resurface that In N Out Burger may be bringing its act to Texas. Granted, the rumors are being perpetuated by such reliable sources as "emails to my show" and "random tweets," but I can dare to dream. Can't I? It seems the "In-N-Out to Texas" expansion rumors pop up every few years, and admittedly being a Notre Dame alum, the bi-annual "Urban Meyer to Notre Dame" disappointment has helped condition me for failure.
The enormity of In-N-Out arriving in Texas can probably only be understood by someone who arranged their entire daily schedule on business trips to California around In-N-Out Burger -- in short, by me. You see, In-N-Out is a family-owned business (a somewhat disjointed lineage now with some bizarre deaths in the family, but family-owned nonetheless), and they've always been ultra cautious about expansion. In-N-Out has also been hesitant to have broadcasters or athletes endorse their product; marketing for them has largely been through incredibly effective word of mouth. But they've never expanded into completely unfriendly territory like this before.
Whataburger and their loyal minions are waiting to punk them at the border. Hulk Hogan is waiting to hit Ric Flair with a thick and hearty chairshot. In-N-Out Burger needs some one to have their back, and my plea to them is this: Make that someone ME. Snyder family (gratuitously showing off knowledge of the patriarch's surname -- bonus points), for the love of all that's sacred, let me be your voice. In a sea of orange W's, let me be your shining yellow zig-zag beacon of light.
At the risk of my personal safety, I have been trumpeting the virtues of your product in this strange land for nearly three years. I have regaled my listeners with stories of your workers and how you have showered them with luxuries like wages above the minimum, 401(k) plans, and health benefits. As a result, you have attracted an educated work force that has yet to screw up my order in my 458 career visits to your stores. In the fast food industry, this is like taking Cal Ripken's games played streak and multiplying it by fifty. It just doesn't happen -- except at In-N-Out.
I have seen the lines at your stores at one in the morning -- the lines that leak onto the main roadway, stopping traffic and forcing you to have two windows open simultaneously taking orders. And again, I can't stress enough -- getting them RIGHT. I can recite my order in less than five seconds ("Double double Animal Style, fries, neopolitan shake, and a single sidecar with spread only") and not only do you understand it, but you have it waiting for me when I pull up to the window!
How do you do it? I don't care. You just do. I know that you have methodically expanded to where you now have 240 locations. In that time, you have deployed exactly zero microwaves and zero freezers. Your commitment to accurate orders is surpassed only by your commitment to fresh food. When I traveled the countryside hawking my wares in sales, I carried along two items that I employed for quick reference needs -- my blackberry and my pocket sized directory of In-N-Out locations around the country. People who had never tasted your burger thought I was crazy. People who had tasted your burger nodded their heads approvingly and called "shotgun" to head to the nearest location.
For the same reason that a hockey player watches Miracle, a football player watches Rudy, or a prisoner watches "The Shawshank Redemption", I watch the youtube video of the "100x100 Challenge" -- INSPIRATION.
I realize the strategic placement of Bible verses on some of your bags and cups places others ahead of me on your list of potential endorsers. At the very least, I am third behind Kurt Warner and Tim Tebow. I know this.
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But look at the two of them, and then look at me. Who is more passionate about burgers and cheese and....well, burgers and cheese than me? In-N-Out Burger and Whataburger CAN peacefully co-exist; this has been proven in Scottsdale, Arizona where they are actually within eyesight of one another. (This patch of land is referred to by burger enthusiasts as "Switzerland.")
Can it be done here in Texas? I'm not sure, this is a tough crowd. The bumper sticker says "Don't Mess With Texas." You certainly don't want to mess with Texas without a little help.
Fear not, In-N-Out -- I am here to help.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 PM on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.