Fort Worth's newest burger joint draws In-N-Out crowd

A stalwart 15 camped out all night only to discover that the crush wasn't that big when Tarrant County's first In-N-Out Burger opened in Fort Worth at 8:45 a.m. instead of the usual 10:30 a.m.

The crowds at 2900 W. Seventh St. were steady and good, company spokesman Carl Van Fleet said, but quieter than the iconic California chain's recent openings in Dallas, Allen and Frisco. The all-nighters were joined by 30 more before the 3,400-square-foot restaurant opened.

But something new and unplanned occurred Thursday.

"Gladys" and "Maybelle" are two Stockyards sidewalk buskers -- aka Julia Rose of North Richland Hills and Deb Crawford of Keller -- who showed up with acoustic guitars to warble the In-and-Out Burger commercial jingle just for the heck of it. And maybe get some YouTube exposure, they said.

The real-life sisters, in matching red dresses and homemade In-N-Out headgear, were largely drowned out by a public address system informing diners at full roar that their Animal-style burgers were ready.

The very mixed crowd -- from sailors in gray-and-blue camo and heavily tattooed bikers to office workers and families with small children -- had a very mixed reaction to their burgers.

"Phenomenal," said a clearly enraptured David Byrd, 36, of Fort Worth, who along with two AccuConference co-workers bought a cluster of $9 logo T-shirts. "Great," said Cindy Tsai, 21, a chemical engineering student from Taiwan who is operating the Looney ride this summer at Six Flags Over Texas.

"It's a burger," said a dismissive Lonnie Kincannon, also of Fort Worth, who believes the local market is already overloaded with such fare. "Can we open any more hamburger places?"

Katey Ivy, 30, of Alvarado, with husband and two small children in tow, couldn't disagree more: "I think it was the best burger I ever had."

Some had sampled In-N-Out burgers before. Some were California transplants coming back to compare reality with nostalgia.

Reality didn't measure up for Kelvin Morales, 20, of Keller, who had lived in Palmdale, Calif., until age 15.

"Not the same," he said. "I think they add a bit more onion in California. It tastes better out there."

Brandon Morales, 27, who works at downtown's Texas de Brazil, was in the loving-it camp -- with a caveat.

"It's a real good fast-food burger," he said. "But Fred's is better," he quickly added, referring to the landmark eatery and music spot a few blocks away on Currie Street that's famous for its signature burger.

Nonetheless, Brandon Morales said he was going to pick up another sandwich for his grandmother.

While there was not a mile of snaking cars up to the drive-through window, vehicles did stretch a block or two at times, and the Wendy's lot right next door looked eerily quiet.

Fred's, a few blocks away, seemed to be doing its usual lunch hour business.

"We've been as busy as ever," said Charlee Johnson, a waitress-manager. Competition will bring even more people to the West Seventh area, she said. "I think it's even greater for everybody. We just need more parking."

Van Fleet said the chain plans to have nine North Texas stores by the end of 2011, including an Arlington location by mid-September at 1075 W. Interstate 20. Nine or 10 company-owned stores are planned for next year and probably six or seven in 2013, he said.

Ron Gentry, who runs Kincaid's with his sons, said he had expected a drop in business at the outlet closest to In-N-Out. "But business was actually up at Camp Bowie," he said. He doubts that mom-and-pop specialty stores will be affected.

If In-N-Out hurts anyone, Gentry said, it will be fast-food chains that have compromised on their core business, citing changes at Wendy's and McDonald's. Whataburger will likely be unscathed because it is so entrenched as a Texas chain, he said.

Charles Wetzel, CEO of the Buxton Group, which advises on retail site selection, said there's still room for the newcomer in the crowded DFW marketplace.

"In-N-Out is an experience," Wetzel said in an e-mail. "It has the potential to take dollars away from all categories because people want to say, 'Did you eat at In-N-Out yet?' Everyone wants their own In-N-Out story."

Van Fleet said the company does not franchise and, by industry standards, "is growing at a snail's pace." And that's just fine with the family-owned venture.

Unknown to lunch goers, there were 60 "all stars" -- employees from California, Nevada and Arizona -- mixed in with local workers to make sure there were no hiccups. Among them: 16-year veteran Barbie Fowler, 68, a former accountant from Irvine, Calif. Fort Worth people, she said, are "friendlier and not as messy."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

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