chief executive officer / in-n-out burger
Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson was born in 1982 in San Dimas, CA. From the day she was born, In-N-Out Burger has been a significant part of Lynsi’s life. Her grandparents, Harry and Esther Snyder founded In-N-Out Burger in 1948 and, to this day, the business remains private and family owned and operated. In-N-Out Burger has always been a family business and Lynsi intends to keep it that way. She grew up learning the core values of the company, and while Lynsi’s grandfather, Harry Snyder, passed away before she was born, she had a very close relationship with her grandmother, Esther, who was a guiding light at In-N-Out Burger for 58 years. Esther died in 2006 but her legacy lives on through her granddaughter. Lynsi’s father, Guy Snyder, and uncle, Rich Snyder ran the company through the 80’s and 90’s with Esther always closely involved. Tragically, Rich passed away in 1993 and Guy in 1999. Lynsi’s close relationships with both her father and uncle helped build her understanding of the challenges of owning and running a family business. While Lynsi and her family have experienced their share of tragedies, their faith has always provided them with strength and comfort.
Lynsi began working as an associate at In-N-Out Burger in 1999. She is currently the CEO of the company and continues to be closely involved with every aspect of business operations and culture. Lynsi is deeply committed to maintaining and enhancing the well-being of the entire In-N-Out family which now numbers over 24,000.
Additionally, Lynsi is involved in, and directs, all of In-N-Out’s philanthropic efforts through the In-N-Out Burger Foundation. Along with her husband Sean, Lynsi is also the founder and visionary for the Army of Love, a nonprofit organization that exists for the purpose of uniting the body of Christ through training tools that will set them free to, in turn, set others free. Her calling is to help equip an army of love to heal the hearts of those living in misery, defeat, and hopelessness by identifying and training them in their spiritual gifts. Lynsi is a devout Christian who is deeply committed to her ministry’s calling. And even more importantly, Lynsi is a devoted wife and proud mother of four beautiful children.
Drew Kugler: So I'm sitting here, in the eastern part of Los Angeles, with former client and friend, present friend, Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson. Lynsi is the President of In-N-Out Burger, and I have known—and become—got to know Lynsi over the last few years. And we, as I said, became friends, and it was a big decision for me to re-approach Lynsi when I was thinking about this podcast. As I was telling her before we started here, the prompt and positive response that she gave me when I reached out asking her to be a guest really inspired me—that if I could get someone of her stature and involvement—if I could get somebody like that— that the show had a chance to really take off. So, in advance of you saying a word, thank you for encouraging me and jumping on this Lynsi—and it has meant a lot. So, welcome.
We always ask the same question to every guest for all sorts of reasons which I explain another episode. But when you were a little girl, what did you want to be, or what did you want to do, when you grew up?
Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson: Well. You know myself, if you could isolate the years, ‘cause it changed.
DK: What's the first one that came to mind?
LSE: The first one. I wanted to work at 31 Flavors.
DK: 31 Flavors? And what was it about 31 Flavors that that made you want to work there? Other than the obvious. You would get all the ice cream you wanted.
LSE: Something about those little pink spoons, and just this smell that you would encounter…
LSE: …while you were working. Yeah. I don't know; my grandmother took me there often, so it's always good memories and just a fun place to go… and I thought this is where I work.
DK: There but I was noticing with my wife driving the other night that there are less and less of them. So the Baskin Robbins has has not held up to the competition as well, but there are still a few and they make a heck of a birthday party. So let's jump in a little bit to as you as you came out of 31 Flavors. When did it become—do you remember—when did it become a direction and involvement at all in the business side of In-N-Out Burger? Was it a big jump?
LSE: That is a big jump, but that's OK I'm used to it. I think that I was sixteen when I was working at my first job. It was at a dentist's office, and I did reception and billing and just absolutely loved the people I worked with. The dentist was my father's friend. And then I knew In-N-Out was coming to town, and of course I was going to need to work there. So I stood in the gigantic line to interview, and I actually got in a small fender bender the morning on my way to my interview, and I was very concerned about being late.
DK: Uh-oh. Didn’t want to make a bad impression.
LSE: Yes, but, yeah, I mean you know that was the first time, really, was when it was coming to town thinking wow, you know, I've gotta, I just need to work here. Now that wasn't my plan as far as going to college, and what my career was at the time. I had a lot of other things on my mind. But working at the store there when it came; and was was definitely going to be fun—and it was. And, you know, from there—that I was when I was seventeen, and my father actually passed away that same year, so that changed, that changed everything as far as what I was going to do in my plans. And that, maybe you were going to go to this college—we were going to do this—all those things kind of, kind of got pushed to the side. Because now I knew there was a great responsibility and weight shifted onto me that my father had been carrying. And that brought me here.
LSE: At the young of seventeen, of course I graduated; I lived in Northern California and moved down here and immediately started working. I was going to school and working for the company. I was actually doing stuff for my grandmother in the donations area for the foundation. I would write the letters and call people and get a lot of rejection. And some happy, happy-to-give people. Of course went back into the store. Worked in our catalog department, which is all of our merchandise. But that was kind of where it started for me.
DK: Got it. Got it. So you obviously jump—starting basically at seventeen—have done every position—in the—I would imagine—in the store, right? Have you—did you—did you have to experience that—or what was your experience, background in the operation? Just curious how the work for someone who's arrived where you've—
LSE: It didn't all happen when I was seventeen, but when I went back into the store, I checked off just about everything on the list.
DK: Yeah, do you remember what your favorite thing was?
LSE: I really enjoyed the different positions where you're interacting with the customer. So whether it was taking orders or doing the drive handout... those are both fun. But when I worked in Redding, up in Northern California, it was very hot in the summer, so I knew my favorite spot was doing the lettuce and having my hands in ice-cold water. Or relaying anything from the walk-in, which is like a giant walk-in refrigerator. Yeah, those were it. And I did, I still enjoy the potatoes. Not dicing them, but prepping them. The washing and spinning them up.
DK: So, as as the career went on, what's become apparent, at least to the outside, outside of what I call people like me. Even with some of the time we've spent together, you and the company have led a predominantly very private life. And my sense was worked very hard, and with great focus, to keep it that way. How—but at the same time because In-N-Out—you know, you hear of movie stars who can't leave L.A.X. without picking up stuff to eat from the In-N-Out there. It's a very public icon in the world. So I wonder, as the now the leader of that, how, if at all, you go about, you know understanding what to do? How to walk that fine line, between running an enormously public and popular institution, but also holding to your privacy. You understand the dilemma. I'm really interested in how you talk about that.
LSE: Yeah. Well, one, I've just really grown with the company. You know from the time I was born, I was around very veteran In-N-Out associates. And, you know, they're still with us today. So, you know, just being around the culture around the people all my life, you know. There was definitely a time where I was living further away and not experiencing it as often. Once I moved down here... But, you know it, it wasn't like, "Oh, OK now we're now, now we're the President." You know, is it wasn't like that. So I think from the public side, what they see is a little, a lot different from what really happened. And you can't explain the process in a few minutes or an interview, or in text. You know, there's so much. I mean it was so many different years of different things here, I when I worked at the company store catalog department; I managed it for two years. It was like a little tiny business within a business, so that was a great experience. And I was taking some business courses the same time. And then when I started sitting in on the V.P. meetings and some of the other meetings and getting involved with operations—I was also going through the different departments, and all of those things—just immersing myself into the company in the different areas. I don't know, it just felt—it felt—very gradual, in a sense. And though the different tragedies that have taken place were very sudden—and impacted me in a personal way—it was crazy. As far as the business side of being here, I think that it's been very natural.
LSE: It's just been like who I am and I don't try to fit into the corporate box. I don't try to wear business suits or anything like that. I did for a time, and then I finally got rid of them. I knew, I just, I didn't care to—where I didn't need to impress anyone, because the thing is—you're never going to make—you're never going to make everyone happy.
LSE: People are always going to say things, and then hate or whatever you know the term is. So you really just have to be OK with, with who you are; for me, with God. You know, I've made a lot of mistakes, and it seems like the mistakes are the ones that everybody knows about, rather than that process we're talking about of, you know, my journey here, and how I got to where I am now. But, I don't know, does that answer your—
DK: To that answer, to that answer, to exactly the question—it really it really sets up what to me is maybe the most—it's kind of the thing I think I have come to understand about you a little bit but I'd love to hear you talk about it in a more obviously general way— is the one thing I always learn from you, in our conversations, was, there were certain, certainly spiritual beliefs, but also a way about treating people—that you were back to Baskin Robbins days with your grandma, that were instilled in you. And what has always impressed me about us, was your focus, and your—it just was as you said—it's just the way that you are—what I'm really interested in, and the listener obviously is—let's put it simply. In-N-Out is famous for certain things. And those certain things, despite all the world changing around us so radically, except for a quarter here and thirty cents there, or whatever—nothing has changed. The old saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same"; you and In-N-Out are testimony, huge testimony, to that. But that's been, if I'm correct, very deliberate. It's not accidental.
So, I remember for example you telling me about you know arguments about, good arguments, good business arguments, about changing the organization. So, the one I sort of remember is you know about the coffee, bring in the coffee, when you have it. So it's not some big secret, but that was a very deliberate process you went through because of the standards and the values that you believe, and carry in your life. And I'm going to make it an easy question. Am I right?, right. Because I see your head nodding, right?
DK: No, I mean—not that that has just been compared to every other client I go to—you are lasered on that, and tell people “no” a lot.
DK: Maybe there's one, if that's OK, can you think of something that you have decided to not do, for the business, or for yourself, because of your of avowed principles?
LSE: Well, I can think of a lot of things.
DK: Give me two.
LSE: OK. One would be the mobile ordering.
DK: So how would that, how is that supposed to work?
LSE: Well, a lot of places do it. I haven't been a part of it yet, but you know Starbucks, you're on your way, you put in your phone, you get there, your order's ready, you know. We we would probably have a faster operation, and you know, which equals more people going through. I mean you've got—you know there's potential to make more money there. But I would not consider it because we're going to lose one of the things we do best, and that's our customer service and the interaction we have and and the relationship. I mean, I really see a relationship between the customer and In-N-Out because we have such a history, and you know our history involves treating the customer like they're number one. They're our most important asset, and how are we going to do that if it's just gone to, you know, basically like a text? That relationship is going to change a lot; and I don't want to give that up.
DK: If I can have you think of another one, but interrupt you for a second—the whole theme as I have as I've told you, and my other guests, the whole theme of the show—is the importance of conversations in our lives. You just described that to me, and correct me, but that the fundamental success factor for In-N-Out is a conversation. Meaning, when that client walks in and he's treated a certain way, friendly, listening, patient. I know that was my experience today when we got a burger before this taping, because I changed my mind. But the woman was unflappable and smiled and said thank you. But you, and I think it's thousands of people, make sure that happens every minute, every place. That's a conversation, and I'm just pointing that out that a conversation is just not a speech—it's just not—they are moments of interaction that make the biggest difference in our lives. That's my editorial for my show put aside. But can you think of another one, maybe in personally or something because you mentioned your work, and you're thinking about God; we've talked at length about that, and I'm fascinated by how you use that to—as your guide for interaction.
LSE: Yeah. Well, you know we get asked quite a bit, you know, if we would franchise, and you know there's people that are willing to pay a lot of money to have a part of this. You know, there's people that want to buy the whole company. There's just so many different offers throughout time and I—you know, I can't entertain any of those because, you know, a lot of what you're just mentioning—for me, my relationship with God is the most important relationship. And that's a lot of conversations every single day and asking Him a lot of different things. And my family—honoring my family, and being responsible with what I've been given—being a good steward—is I think very good driver behind that focus, you talk about, you know. You know, I really live to, to please, to please God. I gave up the the quest to please everyone else and to defend myself and prove myself, so, you know, He's where I get my fulfillment, and know that I'm, that I'm OK and I can just be me. And as far as keeping things the way my grandparents started, we really hold true to the things they put in place. And we've only learned to do those things better, and treat our people better, do more things for them. But we're not, you know, adding things to the menu, because that's something that comes up all the time. A lot of customers want us to add stuff to the menu, and we, we don't. You know, someone—I'll give you a little heads-up, this will be the first time this has come out, but eventually they'll see hot chocolate on our menu. But, that was on the menu way back when.
DK: Back in 1948.
LSE: It was a long time ago, but actually didn't start when we first started, but it was somewhere, somewhere in the middle there. And you know, it's not going to be ten cents again but, it's already been on the menu and our reason is to have it for, for kids on rainy days.
DK: Got it, that's nice. But that's the point—even the changes you make support your beliefs.
LSE: Or history.
DK: The history. So I'm conscious of your time. Truth be told, Lynsi's got to—and I very much respect her about this—she's got to go pick up her kids So I only have one last question. A question that every leader gets asked. You know, when you think about the future of your organization, what— do you see anything—or do you—some people just say—well, we're just figuring out today. We're real busy you know. What's your view of that?
LSE: Yeah. You know looking out, you know we just have to be really creative and intentional in putting everything in place to train and keep things the same, because as we grow—it's, it's just, it's a challenge that presents itself every year. You know, the bigger, the more people, the bigger we are, the more spread out we are, the harder it is to keep that family atmosphere—keep the communications tight and make sure that everyone is getting the same message. So...
DK: Wind-chime alarm on your phone. Quite all right.
LSE: I can't be late for those kids.
DK: No you cannot.
LSE: So, yeah, that slightly derailed me.
DK: No, you were just you know—it's very simple—you were talking about this is, this is an ongoing quest—and I love how you said it. Of course it talks about communication remaining tight. You said, but you said, we're not going to change.
DK: And that, to me, as I've called you many times, a unique leader. You handle that, and lead that in a very—as someone who's seen a lot a leaders try a lot of things—you are the real deal on that front, and a real honor to continue to be your friend—and continue to watch your progress. So on behalf of your kids who are waiting, I thank you for being here today, and I look forward to our next conversation.
LSE: Thank you, Drew.
DK: Thank you.