A few days before my high school graduation, our class took an overnight trip to Disneyland, in California. For a few designated days in May and June, the park closes early to the general public and stays open late for these all-night graduation trips. On the way home the next morning, near the start of the long all-day drive, we drove past a fast food restaurant on a frontage road within view of the freeway. The restaurant had the familiar white and red building, and red and yellow sign, used by many fast food establishments, but the name on the sign was one unfamiliar to me: IN-N-OUT BURGER.
“That place looks like such a total ripoff of McDonald’s,” someone on my bus said.
“No way!” someone else replied. “Have you ever been to In-N-Out Burger? It’s way better than McDonald’s!”
I would learn eventually that In-N-Out Burger had been a southern California mainstay since the late 1940s, when they opened their first location based around a concept that was new for the time period: the drive-thru lane. The earliest In-N-Out Burgers only had drive-thru lanes, a walk-up window, and a couple of picnic tables; indoor seating came eventually with future locations.
On that day I first heard the name In-N-Out Burger, they had around ninety locations spread out throughout southern California. Unbeknownst to me, in the last couple years, In-N-Out Burger had begun expanding beyond southern California, and a month or so after that graduation trip, I would learn that In-N-Out Burger had a location under construction not far from my house. I never got to eat there, though, because I moved to Jeromeville for school the same weekend that it opened. My parents went there a few months later, and Mom said she liked the burger but the fries were not very good, so I spent the next three years thinking that In-N-Out Burger was not a big deal.
A few months ago, early into my senior year at the University of Jeromeville, I started hearing people say that a new In-N-Out Burger was under construction in Jeromeville. My friends who had grown up in places with In-N-Out Burger locations all seemed excited. In November, I took a road trip in the church van to a convention for church youth group leaders in San Diego, with the youth pastors and a few other volunteers. On that trip, when Taylor Santiago found out that I had never eaten at In-N-Out Burger, he insisted that we go to In-N-Out Burger on the way home, so I could experience this cheeseburger. I was instantly hooked, although by now, two months after that trip, I had only eaten In-N-Out Burger one other time, at a different location on the way home from winter break.
The last few times I had driven past In-N-Out Burger in Jeromeville, the building had looked complete, but it was clearly not open yet. One day earlier this week, I took a walk there between classes and saw an employee outside of the closed building. I asked him when it would open, and he said Friday, at 10:30 in the morning.
Last Wednesday, I was at church in my role as a youth group volunteer, and I mentioned to the others that In-N-Out Burger opened on Friday. “I want to eat there as soon as possible,” I said. “It’ll probably be crowded, but it would be fun to go on the first day.”
“I can’t go Friday,” Noah Snyder, replied. “I’m busy all day. And I’ve heard the lines can be pretty long on the first day. Last year, someone I know back home drove up to Valle Luna to eat at the one there on the day it opened, and he said he had to wait almost two hours.”
“I’ll go with you,” Taylor said. “What time are you free on Fridays?”
“I have a three-hour gap from 11 to 2. So even if there is a two hour wait, we should make it back in time. Hopefully if we get there early, though, the wait won’t be that long. The guy said they open at 10:30.”
“Sounds good. You want to walk over from campus?”
“Yeah. That works. Where should I meet you?”
“The flagpole at 11? Does that work?”
On Friday morning, I had my internship in Mr. Gibson’s geometry class at Jeromeville High, then I returned to the UJ campus for Abstract Algebra. I had trouble concentrating that whole time. It was Friday, I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, and I was looking forward to relaxing and catching up on studying over the weekend, but right now all I could think of was In-N-Out Burger. I just wanted that hot and fresh hamburger, dripping with melted cheese and soaked in special sauce, in my mouth right now, accompanied by the hot French fries that my mother did not like for some reason.
When Abstract Algebra got out, I walked across the Quad to the flagpole outside the Memorial Union. It was a cool and cloudy day; I was wearing a jacket, the big one that I had gotten a year ago for the trip to Urbana. I looked around; Taylor had not yet arrived. I stood near the flagpole, slowly pacing and looking in different directions, unsure from which direction he would be coming. A number of other people were standing around the flagpole, presumably waiting for their friends also. The flagpole was a common meeting point on campus, particularly in 1998 when the technology of text messaging was in its infancy. Most university students did not have cellular phones, and the phones and phone services available in 1998 typically were not capable of sending text messages. Students looking to meet face to face had to agree on a location and a time in advance. I started to get nervous that Taylor would not show up, or that I had misunderstood and arrived at the wrong time. Maybe Taylor had left already and was going to In-N-Out Burger without me. What would I do if that were the case?
It was not. Taylor showed up around 11:10. “Hey, man,” he said. “You ready?”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
Taylor and I walked diagonally southeast across the Quad, toward Orton Hall, passing Old North and Old South Halls on the left. We turned left, to the east, on the street in front of Orton Hall, called Shelley Avenue, which then became First Street off campus.
“So how are classes this quarter?” Taylor asked at one point. “You’re graduating in June, right?”
“Yeah, and I don’t need to overload my schedule in order to complete everything. I’m only taking 14 units. Two math classes, Ed Psych, and interning at Jeromeville High.”
“How’s that? You did that last year too, right?”
“Yes. This class isn’t all college-bound students, like the one from last year was. It’s a different experience. A lot of them are tuned out during class and don’t do their work.”
“That would be me if I were in that class,” Taylor said, laughing.
“Ha,” I replied.
“You’re not taking the Paul class with Hurt this quarter?”
“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t fit it into my schedule.” I had really enjoyed all of Dr. Hurt’s other Religious Studies classes on the New Testament, but the Paul class was at the same time as Abstract Algebra. “I’ll be able to take Christian Theology next quarter, though.”
“That’s a good one. I took it last year. So what will you be doing next year?”
“I’m staying at UJ for the teacher certification program.”
“Oh, good! You’ll still be around.”
“Technically I haven’t heard yet if I’m accepted, but I know the professor who runs it. He’s the supervising professor for my internship at Jeromeville High. And he said he doesn’t see any reason I wouldn’t get in. What about you? Are you graduating in June?”
“December. I’m gonna need one more quarter.”
“And your major will be Religious Studies?” I asked, uncertain because Taylor had changed his major multiple times in the last three and a half years.
On our left, across First Street, we walked past hotels, old houses made into office buildings, and a couple of fraternity houses. On the right, our side of the street was lined with olive trees. When I started at UJ, a vacant field of dirt, technically part of the university, sat between these olive trees and the eastern end of the Arboretum, but last year a new housing development, around thirty small houses specifically for university faculty, opened on that lot.
“Last week,” Taylor said, “I was hanging out with Brent one night, and we were thinking of taking a road trip this summer to go to every In-N-Out Burger.”
“That’s awesome,” I said. “How many of them are there?”
“Like a hundred and twenty, or something like that. But they’re only in a few states, so we wouldn’t be going all the way across the country or anything. We’d probably take about a month for it.”
“That’s still averaging four In-N-Outs every day.”
“It’s pretty intense, but it can be done. It’ll be a memorable experience.”
“That sounds fun,” I said. Part of me wanted to be invited along, but another part of me did not want to give up the summer after my graduation, a shorter summer than usual since my student teaching placement next year would not be on the same schedule as UJ, to eat the exact same thing multiple times per day.
“I’ve been hanging out with Brent a lot lately. We stay up all night talking.”
“That seems exactly like something you two would do,” I said.
“Really. Like another time recently, we were talking about women, and dating. And how, you know, at church and at groups like 20/20 and JCF, all they ever teach you is to wait until you’re married and not rush into things. But they never teach you the right way to form relationships. So, we said, it would be nice if there were a group that encouraged emotionally and spiritually healthy dating among Christians.”
“That would be helpful,” I said. “That’s a good idea. I know I could use some guidance on that. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“We were talking about all these ideas, how the married couples could mentor the newly dating couples. And everyone could encourage the singles.”
“I wonder if a real group like that could ever happen?”
“Oh, yeah, then we were talking about what you’d call a group like that. I told Brent, ‘We should name it after you. The Brent Wang Fellowship.’” Taylor laughed.
“Yeah, and I told Brent we could make t-shirts with his face on them.”
“Ha!” I laughed loudly. “That would be awesome!”
“So we can count on you to be a member of the BWF?”
“The BWF,” I repeated. “You even have an acronym. Yes. I’m in, for sure.”
By now, we had turned right onto Cornell Boulevard, under the railroad track, and we could see In-N-Out Burger across the street on the left, between the railroad track and Highway 100. Murder Burger, an independent restaurant that had been an institution in Jeromeville for a decade, was on the right. Many of the locals complained about In-N-Out’s proposed location, right across the street from an established local competitor, and portrayed them as a big chain store trying to put the little guy out of business. Murder Burger countered by expanding their menu, which already offered more variety than the minimalist menu of In-N-Out. This is the proper response to such a situation in the business world, rather than the regulations seeking to rig the system that many Jeromevillians support.
As we crossed the street, I could see a long line of cars in the In-N-Out drive-thru and a line of people extending out of the building into the parking lot. It was long, but not as long as I had feared. I would make it back to campus in plenty of time for my class at two o’clock.
“How is dating going for you anyway?” Taylor asked. “Any women in your life?”
“No,” I replied dejectedly. “I got brave and asked someone out at the end of last quarter. She said no.”
“Aww. Who was it?”
I hesitated. I never liked to tell people who I liked. I had a history of being made fun of and embarrassed on the few occasions when I did. I trusted Taylor, though. “Carrie Valentine,” I said in a slightly hushed voice. “Do you know her? She goes to JCF.”
“I’ve heard that name, but I don’t think I know her. Sorry, it didn’t work out, man.”
“I don’t know. Nothing about dating makes sense to me.”
“That’s why the world needs the Brent Wang Fellowship!”
We waited in line for about half an hour, but the wait for the food once we ordered was much more reasonable, about ten minutes. It appeared that In-N-Out Burger had anticipated the large crowds and scheduled more people than usual to work today, so that all of the customers would receive their food quickly.
I sighed happily as that first bite of cheeseburger hit my taste buds. The French fries were unusually hot as well. I would realize over the next few months, as I made more visits to In-N-Out, that their fries have a very short half life. They are wonderful when you eat them fresh, but they quickly become cold and turn into what are basically long potato chips. I reasoned that this must have been why my mother did not like In-N-Out fries: they probably got cold by the time she got home and ate them.
We were done eating by 12:30. There were many people wandering the restaurant waiting to take our table, so we went back to campus and let someone else sit in our spot. As we were leaving, Taylor asked if we could take a picture. He handed his camera to someone just arriving, who stepped back and took a picture of both of us outside the restaurant.
When we got back to campus, Taylor had other things to do, so we parted ways back at the Memorial Union. I walked inside and sat down, finding a copy of the Daily Colt and turning to the crossword puzzle.
The rest of the day was a typical Friday, although I kept thinking of that wonderful lunch. I had Educational Psychology at two o’clock, then I took the bus home and took a nap. After I made a plate of spaghetti for dinner, I went back to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I arrived about ten minutes early and walked into the room, still mostly empty. The first person I saw was Brent Wang, who was always there early because he was in the worship band.
“Hey, Greg,” Brent said. “How was In-N-Out?” It was no surprise to me that Brent knew that Taylor and I had gone to In-N-Out for lunch, since Brent was one of Taylor’s best friends.
“So good!” I said enthusiastically.
“What’s so good?” Scott Madison asked, walking up behind me. He was with his fiancée Amelia and two freshmen from the dorm-based Bible study he led, a cute curly-haired blonde girl named Brianna and a tall, messy-haired guy named Blake.
“My lunch today,” I replied cryptically.
“Where’d you go?” Amelia asked.
“I know! I know!” Brent exclaimed, smiling slyly.
“Did you make something or go out somewhere?” Amelia said.
As Brent continued, I realized what he was doing. He was not saying “I know”; he was actually saying the letters “I-N-O,” the initials for In-N-Out Burger, in a way that intentionally sounded like he was saying “I know.” “I-N-O! I-N-O!”
“Taylor and I went to In-N-Out Burger,” I explained.
Brianna then joined the conversation, blurting out excitedly, “It’s open?”
“It opened today.”
“No way! My roommates and I need to find a time to go! I used to go to In-N-Out back home all the time!”
“That sounds delicious,” Amelia said. “Glad you were able to make it.”
“We’ll have to go this weekend,” Scott added.
Taylor and Brent never did their In-N-Out road trip. But that conversation planted a seed in my mind, a new ongoing goal in life: eat at as many different In-N-Out Burger locations as possible. I started looking up In-N-Out Burger locations nearby every time I went on a road trip, so that I could go to one that I had never been to before. Within a few years, I was having to make side trips or take less direct routes in order to find In-N-Out Burger locations new to me. Sometimes, I have traveled through areas with In-N-Out Burger locations where I do not often go, stopping at multiple In-N-Out Burgers for the same meal, getting a cheeseburger at one place, French fries in the next town down the road, and a drink still somewhere else.
After a quarter-century of keeping track of all the In-N-Out Burgers I have been to, my total today, in the spring of 2023, stands at 125. In-N-Out has been expanding steadily, now with almost 400 stores across seven states and plans to expand to two more states. In-N-Out’s roots are in California, and most of their recent expansion has been focused on the states where Californians have fled in great numbers, as California’s quality of life has declined sharply in the 2010s and 2020s. This is a brilliant marketing strategy, giving them a built-in fan base in their new cities. On the average, they have opened about three new locations for every time I add one to my list. I will likely never eat at every In-N-Out Burger in my lifetime, but this goal of finding In-N-Out Burgers new to me will nevertheless give me adventures to go on for years to come.
Taylor and Brent’s ideas for the Brent Wang Fellowship seemed silly at the time, something that a couple of girl-crazy but single university students might come up with. But the more I thought about this over the next few weeks, it actually made a lot of sense. Taylor was exactly right; there is a lot of discussion in church youth and college groups about what not to do as far as dating and relationships are concerned, but very little discussion about what to do. I needed this kind of guidance. No one had taught me anything about relationships in childhood or my teens, so I had no concept of how to express interest to a girl, or how to go on a date, or what kind of activities constituted a date and what did not.
I had not yet driven myself crazy with another unrequited crush, but there were a few girls I kind of wanted to get to know better. Like Sadie Rowland from JCF. I had not talked to her in a few days, she was not at JCF that week, but when we did talk, the conversation just seemed to flow naturally and effortlessly. Or Brianna Johns, the curly-haired blonde freshman. She had gotten excited when I said that In-N-Out Burger was open, so we definitely had one thing in common right there. Yet something told me that if I had asked her on a date and chosen In-N-Out Burger as the destination, this probably would not be seen as particularly romantic. But I did not know any romantic date restaurants, nor did I know what did and did not constitute a place to ask someone on a date. This was all so confusing, and thinking about it just made me discouraged. Maybe one day I would actually meet someone in a way that I would not have to worry about doing something stupid.
Readers: Have you ever been to In-N-Out Burger? Do you have any chain restaurants specific to your part of your country that you love? Tell me about it in the comments!
Also, this is not a sponsored post. In-N-Out Burger is not paying me to say any of this.
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