The fast food chain In-N-Out burger is beloved by many native Californians. "It's more than just a burger place," says Stacy Perman, author of the 2010 book In-N-Out Burger. "People have a really personal relationship with In-N-Out." Perman herself grew up in Los Angeles, hooked by the allure of a burger that likely tastes the same today as it did when the chain opened its first restaurant in 1948.
But nostalgia is just one part of the chain's lasting appeal. Though In-N-Out invented the drive-thru restaurant and two-way speaker system that allowed customers to order without ever leaving their cars, it's best known for its secret menu — customer-created riffs on the posted offerings, passed down through word of mouth since the 1960s. The appeal of the secret menu sits in a delicate place for restaurants. If a chain promotes them, at best, customers no longer feel like they're in on a secret. Worst-case scenario? Customers feel as if they're the target of yet-another PR campaign by a major corporation.
In-N-Out, whose formal menu is surprisingly small, flaunts a hands-off approach to the secret menu. There are exactly three meal items at In-N-Out: a hamburger, cheeseburger, and the "double-double," which contains two beef patties and two slices of cheese. Then, of course, you can add a side of fries and wash it all down with a soda or shake. But the chain's (not-so-) secret menu — which has become accessible to everyone via the internet in recent years — has six more burger preparations listed. In addition to a grilled cheese sandwich, customers can get a 3x3 or 4x4 — which has the corresponding number of cheese slices and beef patties — the double meat (hold the cheese), "Protein Style" for a lettuce-leaf wrapper instead of a bun, and the now-iconic "Animal Style" burger, which adds mustard and grilled onions to the mix.
But "Animal Style" isn't just the most famous In-N-Out secret menu item, it may be the grandfather of all secret menu items. As the legend goes, in the 1960s, SoCal surfers would visit In-N-Out after catching some waves and order their onions grilled, their patties fried with mustard, extra spread, and some pickles to top it off. "This could be apocryphal," says Perman, "But the clean-cut kids behind the counter would see the surfer kids come in and call them animals. That's how we got 'Animal Style.'"
And much like the drive-thru, In-N-Out may have started it, but other fast-food chains have since caught on. At Shake Shack, customers started ordering items like the Peanut Butter Bacon Burger — a 2010 special the restaurant has since discontinued — the Shakeburger Cheese Dog Hotdog, and, of course, a grilled cheese sandwich. They now all have a permanent place on Shake Shack's secret menu. While fast-food chains like McDonald's, Wendy's, and even In-N-Out don't consider themselves to have an official secret menu (In-N-Out refers to it as a "not-so-secret" menu), their fans disagree. Several websites list and rate secret menus, including the chains who officially don't have one. According to these sites, not one of the major burger-serving fast food chains in the United States was exempt from having a secret menu — whether the chain liked it or not.
The appeal of secret menus might be a reaction to the assembly-line approach</strong>n McDonald’s brought to the industry. Though McDonald’s too has become more flexible over the years, it wasn’t long ago that if you didn’t want pickles on your burger, you’d have to pick them out yourself. Ricky Garnett, the founder of Secret Menus, a website that catalogues the offerings of various restaurants, understands the allure of customization. “I’ve always been into trying new foods and trying different things,” he says. When Garnett first heard of In-N-Out’s secret menu a few years ago, he was intrigued, but the only information online at the time was in bits and pieces. “It’s been a huge success so far,” Garnett says of this secret-menu resource. “Tens of millions of people later and it’s still growing.”
So far, Secret Menus has 19 major restaurant chains listed on its website, and the offerings themselves range in outlandishness. Sonic will make customers a burger with any combination of ingredients it has in-house. In the slightly excessive camp, McDonald's "Land Sea and Air Burger" combines chicken, fish, and beef into "a stack of three meats that pushes the jaw to its full potential," according to Secret Menus. (During a taste-test, staffers at NPR were not fans.) If you're going for an order that will make you blush at the counter, a mashup of McDouble and McChicken sandwiches known as "McGangbang" (not listed on Secret Menus) is popular with fans online.
Garnett works with both companies and customers to keep menu information accurate. "We go out and try the items to see if they're really possible," he says of his vetting process, which also ensures the called-for ingredients are actually in stock. "In-N-Out is really comfortable with its secret menu but others are not," Garnett adds. While he wants to push creativity, he's cognizant of publicizing orders that might ruin a restaurant employee's day. Secret Menus regularly gets emails from employees or managers who don't want customers to order items like Chipotle's quesarito (a quesadilla-wrapped burrito) during busy hours.
The secret menu could also serve as a useful tool for companies who otherwise have to spend millions in research and development before unveiling a new menu item. "Corporations and managers have been very helpful in guiding our visitors," Garnett says. And his site may also serve as inspiration: Though Chipotle's quesarito is still an off-menu item, in June 2014, Taco Bell launched a quesarito of its own. "The more you get people involved and give them options," Garnett says of chains' R&D approach, "the more excited they'll be."
But ultimately, the dishes on secret menus don't seem to matter as much as the fact that people like flaunting their knowledge of them. According to Garnett, the people who get the biggest benefit from these unlisted items are the "first-adopter" types, those who might use knowledge of a secret menu to symbolize or affirm their perceptions of their own uniqueness. "They are people who like to be in the know," Garnett says. Not only can an East Coaster introduce their out-of-town relatives to Shake Shack (and its secrets), they have the opportunity to teach something to newcomers. And that puts them in a special club.
Brian Wansink, author of Slim By Design and founder of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab, which studies consumer behavior related to food, agrees that people have a psychological draw to secret menus. "Some people really value fine dining because they feel like they're part of an exclusive club," Wansink says. These hard-to-get (or afford) experiences are a symbol of that person's uniqueness. "The secret menu does that," Wansink says, "but it's a whole lot cheaper to spend eight dollars on a burger than it is to join the Philadelphia Country Club." Though secret menus can appeal to people in any age group, Wansink sees it as a "Generation X Thing," adding: "They've been told all their life that they're unique. This is one way of reinforcing that."
The idea of exclusivity and singularity seems crucial to the secret menu's appeal. When Panera Bread counterintuitively announced the existence of its "secret menu" in 2013, many criticized the approach. In a post titled "Panera Has No Idea How Secret Menus Work," Foodbeast wrote: "While the news mildly piqued our interest, we couldn't help but feel there was something vaguely counterproductive about being pitched... a secret menu that is neither particularly secret nor particularly, well, cool."
But it isn't just the belief that we're all special snowflakes that attracts us to secret menus: They also may tell us something about who we are. Psychologist Henri Tajfel's social identity theory also sheds light on the appeal of secret menus and how they translate into restaurant fervor. In short, according to Tajfel, people are hardwired to form groups in order to provide a sense of identity in relationship to others. Groups can form around everything from a sports team to a religion to, yes, a favorite restaurant. Having "insider knowledge" of special menu items can solidify your membership in the group. This happens in two ways. First, the knowledge ties the you to a group (similarly to how speaking fluent English helps someone assimilate into American society). Second, it forms a barrier between those in the group and everyone else not in the know. Since your group's status reflects on you, psychologists have conjectured that elevating the quality of your group ("this is the best restaurant in the world!") makes you feel better about yourself, too.
While customers may become attached to a restaurant's secret menu, the majority of fast-food chains just see it as a form of customization; an acknowledgment of the backlash to the "one-size-fits-all" fast-food mentality. Frank Vamos, director of communications at Wendy's, says the chain has "always been about providing customers what they want." He believes it's unlikely most Wendy's employees would be able to respond to an order for a "T-Rex" (a nine-patty, nine-cheese slice burger), "but if you describe what it is, they can make it for you."
Most fast-food chains have noticed that the days of customization are upon us, perhaps fueled in part by dietary restrictions and allergies that have become more common. Burger King's best-known marketing strategy was the "Have It Your Way" slogan that pitted them against famously rigid McDonald's. But today even McDonald's has been testing out a "Build Your Own Burger" kiosk at various locations in an effort to appeal to the millennial market. Of Wendy's, Vamos says that "customers wanting customization has turned into a core strength for us." Although "the customer is always right" is a noble goal for restaurants, chains are seemingly not capitalizing on the secret menu trend — at least outwardly. If Panera's secret menu launch taught a lesson, it's that developing a purposeful secret menu (or advertising it in any way) feels a little too close to pandering to consumers.
This might explain why even In-N-Out doesn't like to think of its secret menu as a secret anymore. Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out's vice president of marketing and development, says that In-N-Out doesn't consider the secret menu a separate entity. "The so-called ‘secret menu' items are simply variations in methods of preparations for our basic menu items," he says, arguing that even before the names "Animal Style" and "Protein Style," emerged, the chain was serving burgers the way their customers wanted them. "We never set out to create or pioneer a 'secret menu,'" he says. "Some of the names for those variations just stuck."
Semantics aside, it's clear that eaters have put their seal of approval on the secret menu, and it's likely here to stay. As Garnett says, "the secret menu allows people to fall more deeply in love with their favorite restaurants." And that's a feeling that no amount of advertising could buy.