In what is likely the best kind of bad publicity a restaurant can get, In-N-Out Burger’s new Colorado locations sparked pandemonium. Customers waited for more than 12 hours. Cops rerouted traffic. And the Daily Mail, more or less the National Enquirerof the U.K., reported on a man losing his pants in a line-jumping fracas, which it headlined “Buns Out!”
Coming at a time when states and cities are shutting or limiting restaurant capacity as COVID-19 cases surge, it may be time to admit that nine months of the pandemic is making America unreasonably hungry for something -- anything -- new.
“We are extremely grateful when we’re fortunate to be blessed with long lines of loyal customers like we have been at our Colorado locations,” says Denny Warnick, vice president of operations, in an email to QSR Land. “We also recognize that waiting in these kinds of lines is not an ideal situation. We focus intently on doing what we can to give them a high-quality burger, and friendly and smiling service, as quickly as we are able to.”
With locations in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Oregon, the chain's new stores -- located in Aurora and Colorado Springs --are its first in Colorado. Both have one drive-through lane and seating for 74 guests, although indoor dining is currently unavailable.
The Irvine, California-based chain has a cult-like following and routinely tops customer surveys as the best burger chain.
Aurora’s police department tried to manage the mayhem, tweeting out traffic alerts, letting people know the excessive wait times, and encouraging them to find something else to eat.
The commotion impressed local PR people. “In-N-Out Burger leveraged scarcity marketing to heights of success not seen since Coors convinced Burt Reynolds to make a movie about smuggling 400 cases of its signature beer from Texarkana to Atlanta,” writes the Denver Public Relations Blog.
Experts are betting that customer enthusiasm will power the recovery in the restaurant world, especially as optimism builds.
“While we anticipate challenging industry conditions in upcoming months amid social distancing efforts, we see a clear path to a strong recovery in broader U.S. restaurant industry sales once COVID-19 vaccines become broadly available,” writes David E. Tarantino, a senior research analyst at Baird, in his latest report on restaurant trends.
In Baird's survey of private chains, representing about $6 billion in annual sales, participants believe their 2021 sales will be up in the low-single digits as compared to 2019.
Still, Tarantino says employment levels and “possible structural changes in consumer buying patterns resulting from the pandemic” continue to pose a possible risk.