The Legacy of the In-N-Out Burger

Most years, I get one or two opportunities to fly down to California for five days to work a trade show for Lee Valley. And when that opportunity comes, I take it. Why not? California is sunny, warm, and near nice beaches. Most importantly, it’s away from the shop, making it the closest thing to a vacation for me. As much as anything else, its a change of pace, a change of routine, and a change of sights. Four Lee Valley employees from any of the four western stores (Coquitlam, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton) fly down, rent a car, and work the show. We all get along well and have lots of fun. We also eat well and have a little bit of time outside of the show hours to explore what California has to offer.In May, 2008, I worked the Pomona, CA Woodworking Show which was about a half hour away from Sam’s residence, which is a historic site, so tours are available to the public. We all liked that idea, so I made arrangements to stop by. We got a guided tour through his house (which I highly recommend). The tour ended up (as all tours seem to) at the gift shop. I picked out a book, Sam Maloof, Woodworker.

When I went to pay for it, the cashier asked if I would like to have it autographed by Sam. Of course, I said yes, so the lady said that I could pay for it now, she would get Sam to sign it and they would mail it out to me. I queried about the cost of shipping to Canada, and in response, she offered to take the book to Sam in his workshop and get him to sign it right away. I accepted, and ten minutes later, we left with the book.

I tell you – that book is such a good and easy read. In fact, by the time my plane landed back in Vancouver, I had read the book three times, cover to cover. When I got home, I wrote (by hand) Sam a letter, telling him about how much I enjoyed the tour of his house and reading his book, but also lamenting how I didn’t get to meet him. A few weeks later, I got a handwritten reply from Sam thanking me for the letter and invited me to visit him next time I was in the area.

A year later, I was working the Ontario, CA Woodworking Show. I made arrangements by e-mail to meet Sam, and myself, along with the Lee Valley crew, were all looking forward to meeting Sam. And I had turned a Pacific dogwood screwdriver that I would present to him.

As it was the most precious thing I was carrying with me, I didn’t risk putting it in my checked luggage fearing that the airline might lose my luggage (not that that’s ever happened to me), but instead packed it with my carry-on bag. The security guys gave me a bit of flack for bringing a “pointed object” onboard, but seeing as it was under five inches in length, I, along with Sam’s screwdriver, was allowed to proceed. Anyhow, Thursday morning we went to the Ontario Convention Center bright and early to set up the Lee Valley Booth. When we were almost done, I called Sam’s to advise them that we would be there in about an hour. “I’m sorry” Ros Bock, Sam’s assistant told me, “Sam’s not feeling well.” My heart sunk.

Later, during the same show, we drove by a fast food restaurant called In-N-Out Burger.

It was actually recommended to us by a customer as a good place to get a bite to eat. So one night, we pulled into the lot, got out of our car and tried to find a door to the restaurant, only to discover that you had to order from the take out window and that there was no seating inside. It wasn’t what we were looking for, so we got back in the car and went somewhere else for dinner. In-N-Out Burger. The jokes we made about that for the rest of the trip were enough to never have a silent moment in the car.

Fast forward a few weeks to the passing of California furniture maker Sam Maloof, one of my favourite woodworkers of all time. It seemed like every day, there was another e-mail in my inbox or magazine article paying tribute to Sam. One of them was written by someone who attended his service held at Sam’s house. After the service, the attendees came outside and were greeted by an In-N-Out truck. Apparently, In-N-Out was one of Sam’s favourite restaurants. I had to try one.

My next trip down to California was to work the Sacramento Woodworking Show. As it turned out, the hotel we stayed at was just half a block away from an In-N-Out Burger restaurant. The first night, after we’d had retired to the hotel after dinner, I walked across the street to grab a burger. This particular restaurant was one of the newer ones, so it included seating inside the restaurant. The first thing I noticed was the menu. It was a very simple, basic menu with only a few choices of burgers, then fries, a soft drink, or a milk shake. One column and large font. I ordered a “Double double” meal – that is, double patties and cheese, with fries and a drink. I paid my bill and was handed a receipt with a number on it and sat down to wait for my number to be called.

While waiting for my food (which is cooked to order), I began to understand what our customers feel while waiting in a Lee Valley store, number in hand. First, a little excitement at being here in such a neat place. Then, anticipation of our number being called. But if it took too long for my number to be called, the feeling of anxiousness and impatience would begin to take over. However, I think that feeling would be more exaggerated waiting for food on an empty stomach than waiting to buy a new tool. And finally, the elation when my number is called. The wait is over – my patience has been rewarded. I happily showed my number, collected my much-anticipated food and found a table to sit down and enjoy it at. And it did not disappoint.

In fact, In-N-Out became a ritual for me during that trip. Every night, I would make my way across the busy street and order my food. Right now, as I sit at home in Port Moody, BC, I wish there was an In-N-Out nearby. But it remains a destination for me – something to look forward. Oh, I wish In-N-Out would open a restaurant up here. Nothing else is quite the same.

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