SACRAMENTO — It took defiance of Bay Area pandemic restrictions for some Californians to admit that In-N-Out is, after all, just a fast food corporation and not a unifying state identity.
One location’s refusal to mandate indoor masks — and its subsequent closure by San Francisco health officials last week — set off a flurry of debates about both Covid restrictions and the quality of french fries. The issue turned some Democrats against the beloved Southern California-based burger chain and again brought the liberal state’s strict pandemic approach to the fore.
In no time, the Fisherman’s Wharf In-N-Out was a top conversation topic at Fox News, which can’t resist a San Francisco story.
Republicans praised an In-N-Out spokesperson for calling San Francisco’s Covid restrictions “unreasonable” and “invasive” and for refusing to be the “vaccination police.” They also seized on the opportunity to paint Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California as authoritarian and unfriendly to business, though Newsom was not responsible for the rule.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and conservative commentator Candace Owens posted photos of themselves enjoying a burger from the 370-store chain on Wednesday.
“Thank you for serving the unvaccinated AND the vaccinated. Business without discrimination. Businesses that would have served black people in the Jim Crow era. God bless those who refuse government ‘mandates’ that demand discrimination,” Owens said in a Tweet.
In her tweet, Owens also thanked Chick-fil-A, a Christian-owned fast food chain that has been criticized for its support of anti-LGBTQ policies.
In-N-Out has also embraced its owners’ Christian beliefs, but it has been less emphatic about them than other companies run by religious conservatives. While Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby close on Sundays and are outward about their religious values, In-N-Out hides Bible verse references in tiny print inside the bottom rim of its soda cups and discreetly on burger wrappers and french fry boxes. The restaurant chain is perhaps better known for its Southern California-infused T-shirts and signature palm trees than its conservative background.
Still, the company has landed in hot water before.
In 2018, California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman called for a boycott of the restaurant after the company donated $25,000 to the California Republican Party. Since 2015, In-N-Out has given a total of $110,000 to the California Republican Party, according to state campaign finance records.
California’s Democratic leaders, proud of places like San Francisco and Los Angeles for spearheading some of the strictest pandemic rules in the nation, turned their backs this week on the state’s iconic burger chain.
“Literally the worst fries,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said.
Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said you have to opt for the saucy “animal style” topping for the fries to even be edible. “Then, totally not worth the calories.”
In-N-Out is not the only beloved California institution whose conservative owners clash with the values of their devoted customers. Down the street from Fisherman’s Wharf, the San Francisco Giants are principally owned by Charles Johnson, a billionaire who continues to donate to conservative Republican lawmakers and gave to former President Donald Trump, despite his baseball team playing in one of the nation’s most liberal cities.
The debate also serves a reminder that coronavirus precautions remain politicized and pose an operational predicament for some businesses.
Brooke Armour Spiegel, spokesperson for the California Business Roundtable, said the organization supports encouraging employees and customers to get vaccinated but that businesses need help with enforcement.
“In this case, a part-time high school student could be on the front lines of what is a very contentious and unfortunately violent issue in the nation, without any training or increased safety,” she said.
The California Business Roundtable opposed the idea of a statewide vaccine “passport” program, citing “major liability issues.” The In-N-Out response proves that the issue remains heated, Armour Spiegel said.
But others were less sympathetic toward the burger chain.
“It’s time to deprogram yourself. In-N-Out sucks. Get over it,” San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho wrote.
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.