For native Californians who move eastward in the US (myself included) and perhaps for those across the country that have enjoyed a hot, fresh In-N-Out burger on the west coast, this question frequently arises – why doesn’t In-N-Out expand to the east? In an April 2015 Business Insider article, Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out’s VP of planning and development gave four compelling criteria .
But in my mind, the answer should be one simple sentence: We don’t expand east because our business model and operating model are perfectly aligned. For a little more background first, In-N-Out Burger is a company built upon providing fresh, quality burgers and fries quickly, and affordably. Objectively speaking, In-N-Out was named by Consumer Reports in 2011, its first such publication, as the top ranked fast food burger restaurant and has remained there or very close each year since . Subjectively speaking, In-N-Out is simply amazing. Period. Its pull is so strong that it becomes the first meal of choice for many returning to the west.
The In-N-Out Business Model
But in the spirit of taking personal opinion out, let’s focus on In-N-Out’s business model:
I think it goes back to [co-founder] Harry Snyder’s initial philosophy, which was based on quality and keeping it simple and streamlined. He had a motto: “Do one thing, and do it well.” 
The above was Stacy Perman’s response to the question “What is In-N-Out doing right that other quick serves are doing wrong?” during her interview with QSR magazine (Quick Service Restaurant for those that may not be avid QSR readers). In 2009, Perman published a book about the immense success and uniqueness of In-N-Out Burger.
At the heart of it, In-n-Out does focus on quality, partially defined by itself on serving its food fresh (never using freezers or microwaves). In addition to the quality of the food, a made-to-order meal with whatever toppings you want (or don’t) comes out minutes after your order despite often long lines. On top of it all, the meal is quite affordable as fast food restaurants go:
So In-N-Out’s promise is to provide you a quality, customizable, quick, affordable meal; that’s all well and good but you must ask, how do they do that?
The Operating Model
“At In-N-Out Burger, we make all of our hamburger patties ourselves and deliver them fresh to all of our restaurants with our own delivery vehicles,” according to Van Fleet in the Business Insider article . That means In-N-Out must have its restaurants located near its distribution centers, which according to company president, Lynsi Snyder, means within 600 miles . And there are only two distribution centers (California and Texas). According to this map of In-N-Out locations, it appears they have maintained operations in only places near those distribution centers
In addition to the location of the restaurants relative to the distribution centers, the menu is incredibly simple – hamburger, fries, shakes, soda. The shakes only come in vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. The simple menu seems incredibly limiting; however, patrons can make nearly any combination request based on the following burger ingredients: bun, patty, sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. Each item is nearly uniform, allowing for an easy switch amongst the staff (even a burger with no bun uses virtually the same shaped lettuce as for the regular burgers). The most varied offering – soft drinks – is a do-it-yourself service that simply requires the server to hand you an empty cup. This operating model allows for incredible economies of scale while still affording customizable options.
I think we’ve discussed how operating decisions work perfectly in tandem with the customer promise to deliver a fresh, quick, affordable, and customizable meal. What may not be as apparent is whether this provides In-N-Out a competitive advantage. Competitors can attempt to replicate the model which I agree is a potential threat; some can even leverage their larger size and willingness to expand quickly to try to directly compete with In-N-Out. But In-N-Out’s continued focus and delivery on its promise has resulted in a staunch following in its home regions over so many years that now transcends In-N-Out’s operational dominance. It does not appear In-N-Out will ever compromise on its quality or refusal for rapid expansion . However, this does not eliminate the hope some eastern consumers may still hold on to and fear some competitors may harbor that In-N-Out can one day further expand east and north .