If In-N-Out Burger is famous for anything—besides its not-so-secret “secret” menu, its controversially limp fries, and the Bible verses on its cups—it’s the limited geographical radius boasted by the brand. In order to ensure ingredients are served at their optimal freshness, no restaurant may be located farther than a day’s drive from the company’s California or Colorado distribution center. That exclusivity to the American West is one reason the chain has gained such a cult following (including me, an ex-Californian).
So what the hell was In-N-Out doing in Berlin?
I gaped at an Instagram post from an acquaintance of mine, a German Americanophile who runs one of the city’s only decent taco stands. The photo showed a red and white menu with an instantly recognizable yellow arrow logo on top… and German text underneath. My friend wasn’t in California. This was all happening 20 minutes from my house. At that very moment.
“It’s a pop-up for research purposes,” he told me confidently. “They want to see if Berlin’s ready for an In-N-Out. If you ask me, they could’ve just saved their money and opened one.”
I had to find out what was going on. Also, it was lunchtime. So I hightailed it to The Big Dog, the fast food restaurant at the Marriott Hotel on Potsdamer Platz. This is an area of the city that was bombed to bits at the end of World War II; it was still a desolate wasteland when Bowie recorded “Heroes” here in 1977. Once the Berlin Wall came down, it was rebuilt into a gaudy corporate nightmare that’s rarely visited by actual Berliners. Now it was home to an In-N-Out, just for one day. Four hours, to be precise.
The pop-up’s doors had opened at noon; by 12:30, the queue was around the block. As I walked to the end of it, a man in an In-N-Out shirt handed me a shiny red wristband guaranteeing me exactly one of the limited number of burgers that would be sold today.
“Is it true they’re going to open a store in Berlin?” asked the Vietnamese German woman who’d just gotten in line behind me.
He shrugged. “I work for the hotel. You’ll have to ask the people inside.”
As the queue inched forward, the woman told me that the company had been running targeted Instagram ads announcing a “special promotional event” in Berlin. One of them reached a local food blogger; his post about it brought her out that day. She herself was a food lover who’d visited the chain “multiple times” on her trips to the States.
“I wonder if they’ll have the secret menu?” she asked.
Almost an hour passed, during which a quick scroll through my phone revealed this wasn’t In-N-Out’s first foreign rodeo. The company had served burgers in London, Tokyo, Beijing, Melbourne, all in similar pop-up form, all without opening a permanent outpost in any of those cities. Still, I couldn’t help but hope Berlin might be different. After all, we already had a Five Guys.
Finally we reached the front of the line, where another hotel employee ushered us in. Normally a fancy hot dog stand, the restaurant really was doing its best to impersonate an In-N-Out, down to the paper hats on the friendly English-speaking cashiers and the palm tree pattern adorning the counter. The only off note was the menu, which brazenly listed “Animal Style” and “Protein Style” as non-secret options. More weirdly, there were no fries, only potato chips.
I ordered a €7 Double Double combo, animal style. Just seconds later, I got a cardboard box containing the burger and a little tray of chips, plus a paper cup of pink lemonade with “John 3:16” printed on the bottom. Sitting down with my meal, I was almost afraid to take a bite. What would it taste like, freed from its sunny California trappings?
Pretty good, as it turned out. My last In-N-Out burger was over a decade ago, but the synthesis of beefy patties, melty American cheese, special sauce, grilled onions, pickles and squishy bun still struck a familiar chord in my mouth. Although... was it just me, or was the meat a bit dry? I queried my nearest fellow diner, who happened to have eaten the real thing two weeks ago while on vacation in San Diego.
“I dunno, I think it’s pretty accurate,” he said.
So that answered one question. But the big one remained: Why was the chain here at all? For that I had to talk to Luis Hernandez, In-N-Out’s “Manager of Special Foreign Events,” who took a quick break from helping serve the deluge of pop-up customers to have a chat.
“It’s just part of our market testing tour,” he told me in that chipper plastic way that’s specific to US customer service. “Every couple of years, we go around to different countries to gather information, see if people like our burgers. I have to say, Berlin’s had a magnificent showing.”
Magnificent enough to open an In-N-Out here? “Wow, nobody’s asked me that question today!” Hernandez laughed. “But, no, there’s no immediate time frame for that.” Was there another city with more enthusiastic fans, one more deserving of an outpost? “Honestly, everyone who comes to these events has been pretty pumped,” he said.
What was there to “test,” then, if everyone’s so pumped? Hernandez started inching back toward the cash register, still smiling. “You know, it’s just about getting our name out there and bringing our burgers to people who don’t have an opportunity to travel… I’ve seen a few of them cry.”
The only other info I could get out of Hernandez was that the beef in today’s burgers had been sourced from Germany (where cows aren’t gorged on corn, explaining the dryness), along with the onions, lettuce, and tomato. Everything else came straight from company HQ; there were no fries because “it’s hard to ship our potatoes”—never mind that we’re in a country so renowned for its spuds that the word for potato, Kartoffel, doubles as a slang word for German nationals. In any case, it all seemed like a whole lot of trouble just to “test” a market that the company already knew was rabid, and I left Potsdamer Platz just as confused as when I arrived.
Only when I got home and did some embarrassingly simple Googling did I learn the truth. In order to prevent copycats from opening their own versions of In-N-Out overseas, the company has trademarked its name in multiple countries, many of which have a “use it or lose it” approach to copyright law. Hosting international pop-ups every few years allows In-N-Out to prove it’s been active in those countries, and thus wage aggressive legal battles against restaurants like Down N’ Out, an Aussie burger joint with a suspiciously similar name and logo.
Suddenly it all made sense, including the fact that not a single one of these “market tests” has happened in the US. Why on earth did I think In-N-Out would open a branch in Berlin before, say, New York, where a rumored pop-up in 2017 turned out to be a cruel internet hoax?
I felt duped. All that waiting in line, all that false hope stoked by the “market test” claims, just to protect a corporate trademark. I’d even bought a T-shirt, suspiciously cheap at €5. Turns out I was doing them a favor by participating in their little scheme—they should have been paying me.
In the end, though, I couldn’t stay mad. What else would you expect from a company with such exacting control over its product? Paradoxically, pretending to expand allows the chain to stay small, ensuring that the one true In-N-Out Burger may only be found west of the Mississippi.
Which is as it should be, really. In an essay about moving from New York to Puerto Rico, modern-day food sage Alicia Kennedy wrote: “I don’t bring bagels back to freeze because I want the bagels to stay where the bagels are best.” To me, In-N-Out is best on a balmy winter evening, directly en route from LAX, devoured on the hood of a car in the un-Instagrammably golden light of the setting sun.
And if I have to eat a Double Double in Berlin every five years for it to stay that way—well, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.