“Press the Allergy Button”
Behind the Scenes at In-N-Out Burger
February 2018: We’ve updated this article to reflect consumer comments we’ve received indicating that training, knowledge and safety protocols vary widely at In-N-Out locations. Consider the comments below and ask questions of the manager or staff at the location you visit. In-N-Out Burger needs to make a gluten-free safety commitment at the corporate level and disseminate policies and practices to every location.
I make healthy meals at home, some very good ones actually, but sometimes my teenager craves a burger and fries. With few celiac-safe restaurant options, off we go to In-N-Out. Did you know their entire menu is gluten-free, with the exception of the hamburger buns? They have a very simple menu – just the most basic favorites of American fast food burgers.
You can order a burger “protein style” wrapped in lettuce, and add a milkshake (they are all gluten-free) and fries (from a dedicated gluten-free fryer). If you are really clever, you can order cheesy fries or extras from their “secret menu” (psst! it’s on the website), though the add-ons can slam the price out of the fast food realm pretty quickly.
Here’s the kicker: They have an allergy button. It’s an actual button that they can press at your request when you place your order. You specify your “allergy” (I have to suppress my inner doctor who’s muttering, “Celiac disease is not an allergy; it’s an autoimmune disease.”). Some In-N-Out locations train their entire staff to understand the allergy button. They have special procedures that go with the allergy button.
After having visited In-N-Out a number of times with a kind of blind faith that the allergy button represents meaningful food safety practices, and that they wouldn’t make my son sick, I decided to find out more. I interviewed a customer service representative over the phone and a manager in person.
What I learned is that after the allergy button is pressed, the employees communicate by headset to explain what allergy the customer has and how they need their food presented or bagged. Kitchen employees at the grill and at the condiment and bagging station change their gloves when the order reaches them, use a different spatula or other equipment as needed, and use a different part of the grill or a section that’s been cleaned and sanitized. They use a clean paper surface for wrapping the protein burgers.
After the manager explained all this to me, I stood at the counter in our local In-N-Out restaurant to watch them prepare the gluten-free burger I had just ordered. I stared at the line-up of kitchen employees at the grill, trying not to blink or miss the key moments. Their movements were a blur, my perception was jumbled, and the order was ready before I could spot the allergy procedures in action.
An In-N-Out restaurant is a crazily fast-paced burger assembly line. With hamburger buns for the vast majority of orders, there is no guarantee that someone at the grill will not make a mistake that leads to cross-contact. There is always a risk. But people love their fast food, and there is just something undeniably satisfying in saying “Press the allergy button for a wheat allergy, please,” and having a series of efficient, friendly employees reconfirm your request at every window, with complete understanding and assurance.
Whether you are enticed by this popular restaurant chain’s offerings or not, it is well worth noting that some locations of In-N-Out Burger are succeeding in serving the gluten-free and allergen-free segment of the population with standout safety, efficiency, employee training, courtesy and communication. Few restaurants have such a limited menu, so few ingredients, or a simple assembly line in the kitchen; however, there is still plenty to learn from this well-designed model of commitment and clarity.
However, based on comments we’ve received to the original version of this article, not all locations are committed to safe gluten-free practices. Consistency is critical to trust in a restaurant chain. To gain the trust of diners with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, In-N-Out Burger’s top management needs to study the practices at locations where gluten-free orders are handled safely and professionally, and replicate those policies at all locations.
What has your experience been ordering gluten-free or allergen-free at In-N-Out? Comments are welcome below.
I absolutely love In and Out!! My daughter has celiac disease and it is so wonderful to be able to go out for a burger!
They do an awesome job with identifying an “allergy” and are very careful. Her burger and fries are always separate so there is no cross-contamination. My daughter is 14 and she is so excited to have a place she can go to with friends.
I don’t have celiac disease, I have irritable bowel syndrome. After 2 attacks of antibiotic caused C-def last year, I spent several months on the “pot”. I finally changed doctors since I wasn’t happy with my urgent care doctor’s orders to “live with it”. Fortunately, I found a knowledgeable primary care physician who recommended I go gluten-free. Tough but I’ve done it. We are eating MUCH lower on the food pyramid and consequently healthier and I haven’t had a bout of diarrhea since I went on it. In-N-Out is one of my favorite burgers and I have no trouble with their protein style or fries. Yummy stuff!
This article was misleading – the staff at the mountain view California location had no clue. They didn’t know what gluten was…they thought I wanted dairy-free shakes. This included the store manager.
Thanks, Andrew. It’s disappointing to hear there is such variation in training by location.
You’ll find that everywhere as the workers are often clueless, so is best to be diligent in watching what you eat and also instruct them how you’d like your food prepared such as ask for your burger to be wrapped in lettuce,
I wish they’d offer GF bunns like they do at our favorite burgerville here in the PacNorthwet.
I am surprised that not all locations are informed of the protocol with individuals needing a gluten free meal. I just visited the In and Out in Laughlin, NV and was told (when I asked the gal to push the allergen button for a wheat allergy), “oh, our buns don’t have any gluten in them!” So, what gives?!?!
As far as I know, they only offer wheat buns, so obviously the buns have gluten. Based on this comment and others, it’s clear that the level of commitment and training in different locations is highly variable. It needs to come from the top and apparently it is not. I placed a warning at the top of the article, updated the article, and sent an inquiry to the company. If the company replies, I will publish it in the comment area. Thank you for taking the time to comment!
I love your chocolate shakes, but a high ranking physician told me that the shakes are lactose free. I asked him if he was sure about that. I think he might have meant gluten free. I know there are lactose free ice creams, though I did not think the shakes were.
Just tested this in Rowland Heights. They were confused and asked “so does that just mean no bun?”
I love In N Out Burgers too, but when I first started going I would still react and I thought it was a cross contact problem. Then one day when I was making sure that they knew I was really reactive to wheat, after I ordered the meal, the manager came out and told me that he could not put the onions on my food because of the fact that they use buns to wipe them off the cutting board, and the grilled onions were moved around on the grill with buns. So now that I know, I don’t have them put onions on them and I no longer have problems. Also I tell them that they can not set my order next to one with buns because it will not be gluten free. So now my food is brought out to me as each item is made. The sauce is not good either. It is very high in sugar and there is a food starch in it, they say it is gluten free but I react to it.
Thanks, Elizabeth – that’s very good to know!
I’ve never had a problem at any location in Modesto or Manteca CA… need to properly order though. Burger “protein style” for a gluten allergy, equals lettuce wrap. Also, these all have a completely separate prep area and grill for gluten free burger prep.
Just left the local In and Out (ogden, ut). They were all very knowledgeable and seemed well trained on the subject. Definitely leaving feeling more confident than I usually do when going out to eat.
That’s good news!
The one in Phoenix, AZ was very accommodating for my gluten allergy.
I just ate at In & Out in Santa Nella Ca. I didn’t order grilled onions but my protein style burger came with them. I had a Celiac episode afterwards.
Not sure why because I’ve never had a reaction after eating at an In & Out. But I’ve never had the grilled onions before.
It was most likely the grilled onions. They use buns to get onions of the grills. Next time order the burger with no onions and protein style. You’ll be okay!
God Bless you in Jesus’ name!
I was diagnosed with celiac disease 2 months ago. One of my friends has it aswell. The in-n-out in Fairfield, Ca and Vallejo, Ca are the only fast food I can eat now without reacting (my friend also eats at red Robin [gluten free buns!] but when I tried eating their they had no knowledge of gluten free practices. )