In-N-Out Burger finally comes to Seattle…sort of

My CaliBurger test meal: Bourbon spiked milkshake, a cheeseburger, chipotle BBQ chicken sandwich, and Cali-style fries. (Photo by Jane Koh)
My CaliBurger sample meal: Bourbon spiked milkshake, a cheeseburger, chipotle BBQ chicken sandwich, and Cali-style fries. (Photo by Jane Koh)

CaliBurger, a fast food chain popular in China, opened its first branch in the U.S. today, right here in Seattle’s U-district.

“So what? Another burger place on the Ave,” you say? “Why get excited?”

Well CaliBurger’s menu has raised red flags for not-so-subtly mimicking In-N-Out Burger, the iconic California chain that’s the object of many Seattleites’ fast food desires.

After CaliBurger first launched in Shanghai in 2012, the In-N-Out company sued the chain for brand infringement. CaliBurger had to change its advertised “Animal Style” fries to “Cali Style” fries, and its “Double-Double” burger to “Cali Double.”

“Yeah, there was lawsuits a few years ago, but that was all resolved,” said John Miller, co-founder and chairman of CaliBurger, which is based in California but until now has only had restaurants abroad. “The media talks about that, but the company doesn’t make any statements about that.”

CaliBurger not only offers In-N-Out look-alike burgers, but has also managed to raise the bar with its own unique offerings:

“We offer delicious spiked handspun shakes as well as local craft beers, Rachel’s Ginger Beer and Stumptown Cold Brew coffee. In addition, we have a massive video wall with interactive gaming that takes up part of one side of CaliBurger’s interior wall and allows visitors to play Minecraft in a virtual Cali-world, which is pretty awesome,” boasts Reyaz Kassamali, owner of the Seattle franchise.

This isn’t the first time the world has seen U.S. business ideas being replicated (and sometimes improved upon).

In 2012, the GooPhone i5s launched in China and impressed its consumers enough that some swore off their iPhones forever. The phone looks almost identical to the iPhone 5s, only it boasts features like a higher quality camera and a software designed to please both iOS and Android fans — all for a significantly lower price than the iPhone 5.

So should the famous In-N-Out be worried? With over 300 locations in six states, a cult following since 1948, and a rating as one of the top fast food eateries in the country, In-N-Out is arguably the “Apple Inc” of regional burger chains.

However, In-N-Out has remained adamant on not franchising beyond the Southwest for the sake of keeping its customer service and product consistent. Though this may be noble of the company, it’s no consolation for customers here in the Pacific Northwest longing for a Double-Double.

“If In-N-Out refuses to come to Washington, then we’ll gladly accept the next closest thing,” said Daniel Kim, an undergraduate at the University of Washington who plans to frequent CaliBurger.

“A lot of people ask us, you know, ‘why did you pick Seattle?'” Kassamali explains. “The demographics in Seattle, just the economic growth, metrics in Seattle made sense for us to be here. Also Seattleites are very picky. We knew if we could make it here, we would make it anywhere,”

I’ve never tried In-N-Out myself, but I was able to sample a CaliBurger meal earlier this week at an exclusive tasting. The fries were a little on the thin side and the bourbon a bit overwhelmingly strong in my shake, but the cheeseburger was quite delicious. I happily polished that off while my phone charged next to me on a restaurant table’s wireless charging port.

This post has been updated since it was first published.