Monday, October 26, 2015

Caliburger Seattle: In or Out?

I went to Caliburger so you don't have to.

Here's the lowdown on Caliburger, a fast food joint that just opened up in Seattle's University District (the first in the nation, with several planned around the world - claiming to bring California burger realness to different countries). Caliburger claims to replicate California food chain In N Out Burger's taste and tries to copy the restaurant any way it can.

First, a little backstory. After all, if you have no familiarity with In N Out, Caliburger won't make much sense. And once you know, you may be even more confused. Read on...

In N Out Burger is the preferred SoCali burger and fast food of the gods-- er, celebrities, and mere mortals. Here are just a few folks chowing down on INO... 

Becks... (note I mentioned food of the gods)


Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) told me that In N Out caters the Vanity Fair Oscar Party. So basically, stars spend months crash dieting to fit into these little dresses, then the second the Oscars are over, they chow down on some INO. They don't just do this at parties... Angelina Jolie famously waltzed into the Hollywood In N Out Burger post Oscars in her dress and had herself a meal. 

Oscar partyness...
Celebrities are just a small part of the legend of In N Out. I know many people whose first pit stop in LA is In N' Out. It is the best tasting fast food I've ever had, a fast food establishment that has no freezers or microwaves and prides itself on freshness, customer satisfaction (best customer service I've ever had at a fast food establishment) and some serious ethics (employees are paid far higher than minimum wage, managers have the opportunity to make six figure salaries, and there is plenty of room for advancement for good employees). This is a company that prides itself on delivering a great product, cheaply, while giving back to its employees and the community.Who doesn't want to stand behind that?!
Along with their ethics, In N Out burger chose to remain small intentionally. They didn't go the route of McDonalds - who started out at a similar time - which chose to compromise freshness and ideals to cash in and make billions. INO consciously chose to remain small and locally operated, and have moved beyond California to a few other states (Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Oregon). Rumors often abound about the In N Out Burgers slated at other locations, but they often turn out to be nothing more than whispers. To have In N Out is to want In N Out. Britney Spears famously paid thousands of dollars to have In N Out flown out to her on tour. So what do us everyday people do when craving an In N Out fix? 

Along came Caliburger, not only claiming to replicate taste but stealing every idea and concept they could from In N Out, including similar logos, packaging, menu (and yes, even In N Out's legendary "secret" menu). It's so shameless it's actually embarassing.

In N Out Burger Logo                                              

Caliburger Imitation

In N Out cup

Caliburger cups

Many have tried but none have succeeded. Five Guys and Fries is also an INO imitator, but they at least pretend to hide it. Caliburger waved its shameless flag high for all to see. Unsurprisingly, they have already fought a lawsuit in 2012.

So, the question on everyone's mind, did it compare?

Let's start breaking down the experience...

I went to Caliburger on opening weekend (Day 4) to report back what I found.

Arrival time: 11:00am (when the website advertised it would be open)

One of the first five in line (yes, there was already a line), I was met with this sign. We were informed that they had run out of condiments like pickles and needed to restock. It seemed pretty surprising they hadn't done this earlier to meet what would clearly be a very busy customer demand based on their previous days of operation.

Noon rolled around and they did not open until 12:05 (no updates). The line had swelled down the street. Curious passerby's were inquiring what the line was for and had a hard time (understandably) believing that anyone would wait for this. They were right, this was crazy.

When I went inside, this was what greeted me. A friendly employee, who was stuck having to tend an endless line COMPLETELY ALONE. While In N Out prides itself on taking care of its employees, Caliburger seemed ready to set up its staff in a sadistic exercise. (Anyone who has ever worked customer service knows how much this sucks.) It was as if no forethought at all had gone into the madhouse that clearly was opening week. The line moved slower than a turtle's pace and all I could do was feel bad for this employee, who was doing a great job considering what she was being asked to deal with. The other register remained empty the whole time I was there.

Despite being among the first in line, my order arrived 20 minutes later. I shudder to think of how long the patrons in line had to wait.

Arrival time: 11am
Burger time: 12:25

Underwhelmed patrons killing time that seemed to stand still.

Here is the menu. Take note that the food is double the price of In N Out. A hamburger combo at In N Out is $5 versus nearly $9 at Caliburger. They claim to have a slightly larger patty, it seems like the very least they could do - yet still, not very noticeable or necessary.

This is what orders look like. If you've ever been to In N Out burger, you know this exact configuration - from the trays to the presentation - and yes, those are animal style fries - or Calistyle as they are referred to here. Again, blatant and shameless. I still don't understand how they can get away with this in such a litigious society.

I ordered the same thing I would at In N Out burger. For twice the price. Unlike INO, they don't have a sauce packet, when asked they just squirt some "special sauce" into a plastic cup.

The burger wasn't as pretty as an In N Out burger either.

These are the fries, which have been double fried. Unlike In N Out Burger, the nutritional information is not posted on Caliburger's website, so no telling how much more this clogs your arteries though double fried can't be a good thing.

I asked a patron how she felt it compared. She said the spice mixture of the meat was off, that the bun wasn't as good and was thinner, and that the special sauce wasn't right. I would agree on all counts.

Was the burger good? Yes. But there are a lot of great burgers around town, so that doesn't count for much. Burgermaster and Lil' Woody's come to mind for a great INO taste and food you can feel better about, supporting local restaurants.

My trip to Caliburger left me feeling overwhelmed on many counts.

It just felt like an expensive knockoff of a good thing, and I felt like I was supporting a chain that was up to no good. The lengths the restaurant has gone to in order to rip off In N Out Burger don't just border on ridiculous but rather completely absurd.  Even from a marketing standpoint, aside from obvious copyright issues, Caliburger also lacks the California glamour In N Out brings. No celebrity sightings, no mythology (from food wrappers to secret menus)... They can advertise a few local goods like local ice cream, but make no mistake this is NOT a local chain (it is Chinese franchise).

Seattlelites and Northwesterners are a highly socially conscious bunch, imbued with a critical eye for things that just don't look and feel right. Whether protesting oil rigs in the Puget Sound or not allowing ChickFilA into the city because of the political stands they have taken, which are not in line with progressive politics. Odd then that Caliburger would try to make a home here. 

The biggest mistake Caliburger has made is that it boils In N Out's success down to flavors.  In N Out is a champion and a winner in part because of its taste but largely because the company is so ethical and puts employees and customers first. Just because Caliburger can create a similar looking logo and packaging does not mean these two things are in any way equal or comparable. Caliburger has blatant disregard for what In N Out spent decades building and achieving to capitalize and profit off another company's ideas. There is nothing original here. The public is paying more for a chain pretending to be another company and pretending to be local in the hope of acceptance and adoption by taking in a few local products. This does not In N Out make. 

I understand that this is a "grand" opening, but nothing here suggested that all those profits are going back to employees, when they were grossly overworked and this chain lacked considerable preparation that caused many in line to leave (who are first-time customers that likely won't give it a second chance), and while I haven't been able to determine wages (and Seattle has passed a $15 minimum wage law) I would be hard pressed to believe cashiers are making well above minimum wage here or have the kinds of opportunities for advancement and salary range comparable to In N Out or values the In N Out brand upholds. 

In summary, I plan to avoid Caliburger and give my support to actual Seattle's burger chains and establishments. I have no desire to see this company try to ride the coattails of a company that earned their successes by living in accordance with its high standards as In N Out has. Caliburger has yet to prove itself and what can be seen is a lack of originality and shady business at best. Time will tell, but I have every faith that my fellow socially aware Seattlelites will see this experience for what it really is - not worth it. 

Seattle is better than this.

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