“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.