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In-N-Out’s Burger Queen
Lynsi Snyder, the youthful president of Irvine-based In‑N‑Out Burger— and one of America’s wealthiest women—has been as low profile as the fast-food chain’s menu is legendary. Until now.
photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
About 40 miles north of the Irvine headquarters of In‑N‑Out Burger, the noonday sun makes the gritty industrial landscape of Baldwin Park simmer like a Double-Double fresh off the grill.
Hulking tractor-trailers emblazoned with the fast-food chain’s familiar logo navigate the narrow asphalt arteries of a sprawling warehouse complex that serves as In‑N‑Out’s distribution center, a short distance from the spot where Harry and Esther Snyder opened their long-since-shuttered first stand back in 1948. A tour bus contingent of Asian visitors, apparently fresh from lunch at an In‑N‑Out on the edge of the complex, is now milling about in front of the In‑N‑Out University training center, snapping photos and perusing the classic car-themed memorabilia in the company gift store. The visitors’ fascination with a regional hamburger chain is no surprise, considering that over the years, In‑N‑Out—whose freshly-made, premium burgers are famously craved by Hollywood luminaries and rock stars—has become an enduring part of California’s mystique.
The sightseers don’t seem to notice an SUV pulling up. It contains a trim, athletic blonde in a chic black-on-black ensemble accessorized by a stylishly chunky rose-gold Michael Kors wristwatch and a necklace with a glittering Star of David pendant. She is just 31, but Bloomberg News recently valued the company she controls at $1.1 billion, making her the youngest woman with a 10-digit net worth in America. Forbes estimates her wealth at $500 million.
The tourists are face to face with the mysterious Lynsi Snyder, who has weathered personal tragedies and legal strife to helm the iconic company her grandparents founded. As president of In‑N‑Out, Snyder oversees an empire of nearly 300 restaurants in five states, staffed by some 17,000 employees, about 25 percent of whom are full-time. She’s taken on the responsibility of guiding a company that has survived and thrived for more than six decades despite an assortment of competitors, ranging from multinational giant McDonald’s to scores of upstarts that have tried to imitate In‑N‑Out’s minimalistic but high-quality version of fast food. If flipping burgers can be likened to art, Snyder’s task is similar to that of an expert assigned to restore a Rembrandt. She must preserve and nurture In‑N‑Out in a 21st century marketplace far removed and vastly different from its origins—and somehow do it without changing an operation built on familiarity.
To some, this would seem a daunting challenge. But Snyder already has faced far more trying moments.
Comfortable in a settee in her high-ceilinged office, Snyder leaves her tall iced coffee untouched as she recounts the two occasions she was nearly abducted. The first was when she was 17 and a high school student in Northern California. The second occurred in Baldwin Park when she was 24 and working in management at In‑N‑Out. “I ran across the highway,” she recalls of her escape. She pegged her would-be kidnappers for criminals out to nab an heiress, because “they had a van with boarded-up windows.”
Those experiences make her reluctant to say much about her own family, to the extent that she asked Orange Coast not to disclose how many children she has from her three marriages. Even so, in describing her brushes with danger, Snyder is unsettlingly cheerful: “It all helped mold me into who I am now.”
She’s not easily rattled. An outdoorsy jock who’s played multiple sports, she at one point was training for an amateur boxing career when a bruised kidney sidelined her. (“I decided that I’d better take it easy and have children before I came back to that,” she says with a laugh.) Today, besides business, her passion is drag-racing, a sport her late father, Guy Snyder, introduced her to. Photographs of her with her dragsters adorn her office walls. Guiding a finicky high-performance machine down the track at nearly 200 mph and getting slammed into the driver’s seat by multiple Gs is her idea of a good time.
Now in the process of divorcing her third husband, race car driver Val Torres Jr., Snyder—who has taken auto mechanic courses and likes to work on her own cars—serves as crew chief of her Flying Dutchman racing team as well. (National Dragster magazine describes her in a 2012 profile as showing “great promise” in her first two performances of the season in an orange, custom-built 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.)
“I’m a lot like my dad, a little bit of a daredevil,” she says. “I like an adrenaline rush. My dad took me to the racetrack for the first time when I was 2 or 3. … Anything with a motor, that was in my blood.”
Her devotion to Christianity is reflected in a small tattoo on her arm, an Aramaic phrase she scoured the Web to find. “It’s Jesus’ language,” she explains. “It’s part of a Bible verse. Matthew 6:10. It says, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done.’” She sports a companion tattoo in Hebrew. “It says, ‘Hated.’ It references John 15:18, where Jesus says—this is paraphrased—‘Do not be surprised when the world hates you, for it hated me.’ So yes, those are for me. Those are reminders.”
And indeed, while Snyder has walked through darkness a few too many times for a woman seemingly born to a life of privilege, her fearless, thrill-loving race car driver side is balanced by an oddly incongruous caution when it comes to running the company she inherited.
“In the business world, I’m much more conservative, much more old-fashioned,” she says. “I’m not as much into taking risk. … On those personality tests, I come out as a choleric-sanguine, a combination of opposites: an organized, careful leader, but also fun-loving and free-spirited.”
Snyder’s conservative, risk-averse side, though, is a good fit for In‑N‑Out Burger, which has two core principles: 1) Don’t change anything, and 2) Concentrate on doing the same things you’ve always done, as well as humanly possible.
When Harry and Esther Snyder opened their first hamburger stand after World War II, their business plan was to sell a few simple, inexpensive menu items made from the best, freshest ingredients they could obtain, and to prepare them meticulously by hand, so that they tasted as good as possible. According to business journalist Stacy Perman’s 2009 book on the company, Harry Snyder also came up with one big technological innovation that helped create the fast-food industry: the speakerphone for drive-through windows, which he had to show customers how to use when he introduced it in 1948. (Jack in the Box, the second company to use an intercom, added it three years later; McDonald’s first drive-through speaker didn’t arrive until 1975.)
It wasn’t the only time the company was way ahead of the curve. In 1955, for example, decades before the low-carb craze, a dieting Harry Snyder supposedly began eating his burgers without a bun, wrapping lettuce leaves around the contents to hold them together. In‑N‑Out then began making a “protein-style burger” for customers who asked to do the same.
The Snyders’ emphasis on quality and value was combined with slow, cautious expansion in which the parent company kept control of all the restaurants bearing its name, rather than selling franchises. When Harry Snyder died in 1976 and control of the company passed to his son and Lynsi’s uncle, Rich Snyder, the chain had just 18 restaurants, all in California. Nevertheless, burgeoning competitors such as McDonald’s, whose vaunted assembly-line kitchens churned out burgers, fries, and shakes with ruthless efficiency, failed to knock In‑N‑Out out of its profitable niche. More recently, the company has withstood challenges from upstarts such as Five Guys, a Virginia-based chain that rapidly expanded westward a few years ago onto In‑N‑Out’s turf. Industry analysts ascribe In‑N‑Out’s continuing success to its insistence on sticking to its original formula—and to the loyalty it has built among generations of customers as a result.
“When you have a concept that doesn’t have a lot of moving parts, it’s a lot easier to operate,” explains Dean Small, president of Synergy Food Consulting Group, a Laguna Niguel firm. “They’re great at what they do, and they have not strayed from the original. What In‑N‑Out has and all the other brands often lack is culture. They’re superfocused on what got them to the prom, the idea that ‘This is our product, and we’re proud of it.’ Customers love that.” Indeed, Small notes, over the years In‑N‑Out has grown into a cultlike phenomenon, with regulars developing their own secret menu of special-order variations on the prosaic menu. “It just
kind of happened,” Small says. “It’s like when you go to Starbucks and order your double-tall no-whip whatever. It takes on a life of its own.”
Snyder, who inherited control of In‑N‑Out in 2006 when her grandmother died, and ascended to the corporate presidency in 2010, won’t be adding new products or expanding into new markets as new CEOs who want to put their stamp on a company often do.
“How we make our decisions is not looking to the right and left to see what everyone else is doing,” she explains. “It’s just looking forward and doing the same thing that we’ve done in the past, because it has worked. We don’t have plans to change the menu. We don’t have plans to crank up the growth. It’s just kind of doing the same thing and being smart, and everybody doing their job. Like a plane on autopilot. There’s so much momentum, with all the people who’ve been here and have tenure. There’s so much strength, as a whole. So we just keep on doing the same thing, and it runs pretty smoothly.”
Under her three-year tenure, In‑N‑Out has expanded—cautiously—into Texas, a move she says has been in the works for a decade. That foray brought one rare, considerably less-than-daring change to the company’s formula: It added iced sweet tea to the menu. “We knew that everybody loves sweet tea there,” Snyder explains. “It’s not that hard. We just need to bring sugar in.” But don’t expect to see it on the menu in Orange County anytime soon, because, she says, “Texas is so separated from here.”
Instead, Snyder concentrates on subtle improvements. While she’s an iced-coffee lover, she has never considered adding that or any other fancy coffee drinks to the menu as McDonald’s has. Instead, she set out to improve In‑N‑Out’s basic brew. “I went to the [supplier’s] plant, and did the taste test, and learned about the beans, all the things related to coffee,” she says. “So now I feel like an educated coffee-ist.”
Similarly, she often takes a hand in what would seem like branding details too minor for the involvement of a CEO, such as supervising radio ads and overseeing the design of the classic car T-shirts the company sells in its gift store, in restaurants, and online. She runs teamwork-building workshops and conferences that, at another company, would be the province of a human resources subordinate.
Instead of focusing on the size of her restaurant chain, “I put more thought into how we’re going to maintain the family atmosphere and the closeness,” she says. “We do a lot more that we weren’t doing, getting everyone together more.” Indeed, In‑N‑Out Burger has a reputation for taking unusually good care of its workforce. According to the Web publication Business Insider, In‑N‑Out ranked highest among 13 fast-food chains in pay, with workers starting at $10.50 an hour—nearly $2 more than its next-closest competitor.
Snyder is not the stereotypical young tycoon lionized in the business press, the sort who revels in being a change agent and has “Disrupt” tattooed where her Aramaic Bible quote appears. It’s no surprise that Fortune magazine’s “40 Under 40” cover story about the hottest young stars in the business world, which rests on a table in her office lobby, doesn’t include her. She doesn’t mind at all. “I like to fly under the radar,” she says.
But that’s not so easily done when you’re the scion of a brand name as familiar as In‑N‑Out. She’s the daughter of Harry and Esther Snyder’s eldest son, Guy, a flamboyant, fun-loving nonconformist who, according to Perman’s book on the company, became addicted to painkillers after a serious mid-’70s motorcycle accident. Perman portrays him as a talented-but-troubled man who veered erratically between bonhomie and dark fugues, which may have led to his initially being passed over for the company presidency after Harry’s death in 1976. The job went to his younger but more conservative brother, Rich.
Both sides of Guy were a powerful influence on Lynsi. “Because of my dad’s struggle with drug addiction, I have a great love for addicts,” she says. “I see that you can have a really smart, great person, who is dealing with an addiction that makes him an entirely different person. … I think people are quick to judge.
“Having my father be such a great dad, and so loving and so genuine and funny, and everything else he was, and to see him struggle with that, it opened my eyes to what people go through. A lot of people turn to different things: drugs, money, women … whatever it is. My motto: ‘Don’t look at what the person does, but look at the why.’ Why are they doing it? That helps you to have so much more grace and understanding.”
While her father moved to a ranch in Northern California and got heavily involved with auto racing, her uncle relocated the corporate headquarters from Baldwin Park to Irvine, near his home in Newport Beach. In 1993, when Lynsi was 11, Rich Snyder and four others were killed in the fiery crash of a private jet near John Wayne Airport. As a result, her father was elevated to company chairman, and her grandmother took over as president.
At 17, Lynsi yearned to become part of In‑N‑Out, and with her father’s blessing, sought a summer job in Redding. “I stood in line for two hours to apply because it was a brand-new store,” she recalls. The manager knew her identity, but to the rest of the staff, she was just another newbie. She started out like everyone else in prep work, coring tomatoes, peeling potatoes, and slicing onions. “Of course, I would cry every time,” she recalls with a laugh. Nevertheless, “I was really excited to work there, because it was the family business. It was fun, and I thought it would make my dad happy.”
But then, that winter, Guy Snyder died at age 48, of an accidental overdose of the painkiller hydrocodone, leaving behind Lynsi and her mother, Lynda Lou Perkins (née Wilson), whom Guy had met in 1979 while staying at one of the family’s vacation homes in Hermosa Beach. Lynda was seven years older than Guy, with two pre-teen daughters from a previous marriage.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” says Snyder, who was born in 1982 as Guy’s only biological child. “When my dad was ripped out of my life, that was a huge loss for me.” She had always been around religion. According to Perman’s book, her father built a nondenominational private Christian school for her to attend in the small town near his ranch. And her uncle, a member of Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel, was so famously devout that he discreetly printed citations for Bible verses on soft-drink cups and food packaging, a tradition that continues today.
It wasn’t just talk. According to Perman’s book, the adolescent male tradition of modifying In‑N‑Out bumper stickers to read “In‑N‑Out Urge” so offended the sensibilities of some at the company that, by 1990, the chain discontinued the original sticker and replaced it with a new one. “This time,” Perman wrote, “a well-placed image of a Double-Double was placed on the spot where the word ‘burger’ once stood.”
After her father’s death, the gap in Snyder’s life was filled by her deepening religious faith. “It gives me life, and makes me feel strong, and encourages me to stand for others … knowing what different people in the Bible went though. I’m not getting dragged through the street, or hanged or flogged, [so] I guess I can make it through. It could be worse.”
Both Guy and Lynda remarried after their divorce in 1997, but Guy’s second marriage didn’t last either. After her dad died in 1999, Lynsi married at age 18, a union with a young man from her Northern California hometown that lasted only two years, according to Perman. In 2005, she married Richard Martinez, an In‑N‑Out staffer. Though the two eventually split, she continues to work with a missionary-training charity in which she and Martinez, who is now a pastor, became immersed. “We’re in 18 countries now,” she says. “It’s a great ministry.”
As the sole beneficiary of family trusts that ultimately will give her control of 65 percent of the company’s stock at age 35, according to the Los Angeles Times, she’ll eventually become the majority owner of In‑N‑Out, where she has served in both the human resources and merchandising departments.
But in 2006, Snyder was among those named in a lawsuit filed by then-company vice president and board member Richard Boyd, one of three co-trustees overseeing her ailing grandmother’s estate. (Lynsi was not among the co-trustees.) According to news reports, Boyd alleged that Snyder and allies within the company had sought to dump him as part of a coup to wrest control of In‑N‑Out from Esther. Though the suit eventually was settled, it was painful for Snyder to be thrust into the public spotlight. “That was one of the hardest things, aside from losing my father,” she says. “It was just the betrayal … all this false stuff out there.”
But in some ways, Snyder says, the experience made her more resilient. “I used to be a defensive person. I wanted to defend myself. I’m big on justice and being fair. After that took place, it just wore down the gears. It taught me to just let that stuff roll off me. Don’t base your value on what people think of you.”
Of course, Snyder—who reported a monthly income of $50,770 in a 2011 court document related to her divorce—knows it’s not that important what people or the world think about her; it’s what they think about In‑N‑Out. To that end, she zealously guards her brand from usurpers. She doesn’t worry about legit competitors such as Five Guys—“We’re not haters,” she laughs—but she is aggrieved by imitators who appropriate the In‑N‑Out name or imagery, even if they’re thousands of miles away. “I think the strangest place was in Malta,” she says. “That little island in the Mediterranean, that’s pretty random.” She’s found similar trademark violators in Denmark and Ethiopia.
This laser focus has earned her a few plaudits from industry analysts. Randall Hiatt, president of Costa Mesa-based restaurant consulting firm Fessel International, thinks Snyder has shown “great discipline.
“From the consumer standpoint, she hasn’t done dramatic things. But she hasn’t changed what they like, and that’s a good thing. She doesn’t have any [public] shareholders, so she’s really accountable to her customers, and thousands of employees. But she’s got both believing in the business model. If you get to the core, everyone believes that the In‑N‑Out concept produces a high-quality burger.”
Snyder plans to stay the course. “I never really regret thinking of things I wish I would have done. Because, I just know this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I guess there’s that weight of feeling responsible, for taking care of what the family started. There are so many people that invested their lives into it, that cared for my grandparents and my dad and my uncle, and the feeling is mutual.”
Snyder likely will continue the low profile. On this sunny afternoon in Baldwin Park, she gets out of her car and watches the photo-snapping tourists surging past her, preferring to remain anonymous. All of these In‑N‑Out fans will climb back into their bus and head down the highway, never knowing they’d had a close encounter with the woman who controls it all.
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Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.