Culver's Vs In-N-Out: Everything You Need To Know

There are over 200,000 fast food restaurants in the United States, a lot of which use heavily processed ingredients. So where do fast foodies looking for an affordable, high-quality meal go for a quick bite? Depending on where you are in the U.S., you could have access to one of these two established fast food restaurants that use real ingredients and make your food to order. Both Culver's and In-N-Out Burger have been proudly serving up freshly made food for a number of decades and have stayed true to their humble beginnings through it all. However, some key differences set these two burger joints apart.

Servingsimple, yet staple meals on the West Coast, In-N-Out has become a name that's synonymous with California living. The Midwest's Culver's, on the other hand, is the place for hometown heroes and families to share a meal together. From menu offerings and business practices right down to how they cook their burgers, here is everything you need to know about these two fast food restaurants and how they differ.

What is Culver's?

Depending on where you reside, you may have never heard of this fast food chain that prides itself on a homegrown feel and family-centric values. Culver's started as a family operation in the small town of Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1984. The mom-and-pop burger joint has since grown to nearly 1,000 locations that span 26 states. Its promise of high quality in both ingredients and service remains a priority no matter how large the company becomes. Even though Culver's has expanded as far as Florida to the South and Arizona to the West, the franchise's Wisconsin roots are evident in the ingredients it uses. You'll find many of the menu's cheese and cream based items come from dairy farms in Wisconsin.

Culver's is known for its ButterBurgers, a seared beef patty paired with a bun crowned with melted butter. Unlike a lot of fast food burger restaurants, this Midwestern-based chain has a wide selection of food items on the menu outside the scope of its signature dish, including chicken and seafood options. The frozen custard, which is made in-house throughout the day, is another way Culver's sets itself apart from other brands. 

What is In-N-Out?

Even if you're not a West-Coaster, you've likely heard of In-N-Out. The burger brand has become something of a beloved staple in Californian culture, and an experience transplants and out-of-towners tend to have on their Cali bucket lists. Though both boast fresh and quality ingredients, In-N-Out predates Culver's by almost 40 years with the first of its locations serving up drive-thru burgers back in 1948.

The classic burger joint was founded and operated by husband and wife Harry and Esther Snyder and continues to be run by their granddaughter Lynsi Snyder. Harry is credited as the inventor of the two-way intercom system the same year In-N-Out opened, changing the fast food game forever.

In-N-Out has seemingly made fans of us all, with people from all walks of life ordering from the straightforward menu, which consists of burgers, fries, and shakes. Anthony Bourdain, who famously liked a simple meal, and Gordon Ramsay, a chef who has earned 17 Michelin stars, approach food very differently yet both enjoy a good In-N-Out burger. The chain's simple quality burger makes it a timeless, go-to option for fast foodies.

Culver's menu features various proteins

In-N-Out Burger has a menu that is very true to its name, as the company largely offers burgers with a side of fries as its sole food option. Culver's, on the other hand, showcases a menu that is rich in variety. There's the standard burger meal available at Culver's, but you can also take a bite of a chicken or seafood sandwich. This different approach to the companies' menus is the most glaring difference between the two burger joints. In-N-Out has seemingly perfected a simple menu while Culver's appeals to those with changing palates.

Culver's choice to feature a menu with such a range is a great service to families and those with wandering taste buds. The best way to sate even the pickiest of family members' appetites is to offer a little something for everyone. Popular Culver's menu items include fish and chicken sandwiches as well as dinner plates and baskets centered on your choice of protein. Additionally, you'll find shrimp, pot roast, and pork loin on the menu, along with salads and a veggie burger — all of which are, of course, absent from In-N-Out's tried and true menu.

In-N-Out does not do franchises

Some of the heaviest hitter fast food restaurants in the world are franchises, but In-N-Out is proud to not be counted among them. The classic burger joint has refused to franchise in all its lifetime, but that certainly isn't for lack of offers. The In-N-Out brand is heavily desired by investors looking to expand into areas that are currently barren of the business. Would-be customers are also salivating at the thought of finally sinking their teeth into an Animal Style burger, but the reality of this isn't likely to come from a franchise.

Franchising occurs when a company has sold its rights for use by an independent owner, allowing for quick expansion. Culver's has taken this business direction, which has helped the company rise to nearly 1,000 locations across the U.S. Though the monetary benefits are certainly there, selling the rights to a business sacrifices control of how to manage a franchised location. This is why In-N-Out has been adamant about maintaining the sole rights to its name, logo, and brand. The integrity of a brand is often worn down by lackluster franchise locations, and In-N-Out's mission of quality would be at risk if Lynsi Snyder were to sell to outside investors.

Culver's is famous for its ButterBurgers

Culver's isn't simply a burger joint, it's a ButterBurger joint. The brand has stuck close to its Wisconsin-based roots and officially titled its burgers ButterBurgers, both on the menu and signage across franchises. The butter burger is thought by many to have been invented in Wisconsin but has now been made famous by Culver's and its proud distinction of the burger cooking method.

A butter burger is exactly what it sounds like: a burger made with butter. Though the makings of a butter burger may change with the region, most are the product of a healthy helping of butter placed on the patty or bun. Culver's doesn't cook or top its burger patties with butter, instead topping the buns with melted butter. The butter is sourced from a family-owned dairy creamery not far from where the original Culver's in Sauk City, Wisconsin, is located.

In-N-Out makes no mention of butter when cooking and stacking its burgers. Instead, the restaurant sears the beef and completes the patties with a slow risen bun. Both fast food favorites can make a good burger but do so in their own unique way.

In-N-Out only offers milkshakes while Culver's has many frozen custard desserts

If you have a taste for the superior sweet and salty flavor combo, you've probably dipped a fry or two into a milkshake. If you dine at Culver's though, you'll have to settle for fries and custard. The Midwestern fast food chain is unique in carrying a selection of frozen custard desserts instead of the classic milkshakes that most quick-stop menus boast. In-N-Out's menu, as barebones as it may be, still includes a choice between vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate shakes.

Frozen custard is similar to the ice cream base of a milkshake, the main difference being that it is made with the addition of egg yolks. Culver's offers fresh, made-in-house frozen custard in a wide range of flavors. The sweet treat comes in shakes and malts, but can also make for a tasty sundae with the addition of toppings. A flavor of the day is another fun way the chain mixes up its dessert options. As for the Western burger company, the only way to mix up the basics is to order from In-N-Out's secret menu and get the Neapolitan or a Side-by-Side, which are combinations of the trio of flavors the brand offers.

Culver's menu features a wide range of sides

We've already touched on the limited nature of In-N-Out Burger's menu. The only side the iconic brand offers is fries, and we really don't see that changing anytime soon. Culver's, on the other hand, paints a very different picture of what your meal could look like with the sides section of its menu.

Instead of the customary fries and secondary onion rings, Culver's offers an array of dishes to pair with its ButterBurgers and alternative protein dishes. Of course, you can order fries or onion rings too, but interestingly enough, cheese curds are one of the restaurant's popular sides along with pretzel bites and chili. Healthier options include broccoli, a side salad, or applesauce. Coleslaw and mashed potatoes round out the restaurant's menu, and those looking for an extra hearty side dish can order chili and cheese topped fries. The combination of menu items at Culver's is superior to a lot of fast food spots, so every trip here has new possibilities for your taste buds.

In-N-Out sources its own burger meat

Both Culver's and In-N-Out boast about their freshness and quality ingredients, but In-N-Out takes this to a whole new level with its beef. With two patty making facilities in California and one in Texas, the famous burger-flipping company sources its own fresh beef for delivery to stores. In-N-Out uses beef with no fillers or preservatives, and customers can be sure of the quality since the trusted brand sees out the life of the burgers from the time the beef is processed to the moment you take your first bite.

While Culver's does not have its own beef processing plant, it does source its ingredients carefully. The chain obtains many ingredients from American farms, with the cheese, butter, and milk used across the menu coming from local Midwestern dairy farms. The beef also comes from family farms in the Midwest region. Culver's not only boasts its ingredient sourcing right on the kid's menu takeaway bags, but the company also shows appreciation to all the farmers who make high-quality food possible.

Culver's and In-N-Out have wildly different house sauces

The secret is usually in the sauce, and for several restaurants that pretty much holds true (Chick-fil-A sauces arguably make the meal). However, we aren't quite sure if that is the case for Culver's or In-N-Out. Both burger joints rely on burger quality and peak freshness to satisfy customers, but each also has a selection of signature sauces that are wildly different from one another.

Culver's go-to sauce is a creamy, cheesy sauce that has a distinct tangy taste. It's designed to pair with anything from fries and cheese curds to any of the sandwiches on the menu. In-N-Out's secret sauce is more like what you would expect from a house sauce. It can easily be compared to a Russian or Thousand Island dressing, with a combination of ketchup, mayo, and relish flavors. It naturally comes on each burger unless specified otherwise, tastes great drenching fries, and plays an even bigger role on the not-so-secret menu. 

It's important to note that Culver's didn't introduce a house sauce until relatively recently in 2023. Conversely, the In-N-Out menu has hardly ever changed, so the sauce is ingrained in what an In-N-Out burger has come to be known as.

In-N-Out is largely located in the West

Sorry East Coasters, In-N-Out is about a six-hour plane ride away. Though not the household name it is on the West Coast, In-N-Out is pretty well known in areas it has yet to get anywhere close to. There doesn't appear to be much hope for those east of Texas to get their paws on an Animal Style burger anytime soon, either. In an interview with Forbes, Lynsi Snyder revealed she doesn't have East Coast expansion on her mind, saying, "I don't see us stretched across the whole U.S. ... Take Texas — draw a line up and just stick to the left. That's in my lifetime."

Culver's, though not found everywhere in the U.S. just yet, is still more spread out. You can find a Culver's location in 26 states, most in the Midwest and Southeast. The franchised brand shows no signs of slowing down expansion, with at least 50 new locations planned for 2024. Unlike In-N-Out, this growth should see more areas of the United States enjoying its burgers.

Culver's french fries are crinkle cut

Other than the burgers themselves, the one thing that sets a burger joint a step above the rest is its fries. They're a burger's perfect sidekick, and a good fry can go a long way in swaying a customer's decision when choosing a place to dine. For just being a bunch of fried potatoes, the fast food staple sure can take on many different distinct tastes and forms. When it comes to Culver's fries, they are crinkle cut and always fried to order.

The untold truth of In-N-Out fries is that they are kind of hated across the board. On paper they sound great, as they are cut in house from fresh potatoes, but patrons' love for an In-N-Out burger just doesn't translate to the fries. They're missing that Culver's crinkle cut, and while the shape difference may not be the underlying cause of people's dislike of In-N-Out fries, the shape of a french fry can change its taste.

In-N-Out doesn't have a kid's menu

In typical In-N-Out fashion, the barebones menu doesn't include children's items. While this would typically be a bummer for parents and those with little ones in tow, the smallest burger biters aren't out of luck. In-N-Out's offerings may be concise, but they already include items that are typically on a children's menu at a not-so-far-off price point. Though the cost may fluctuate from location to location, you can generally grab a small burger and fry for under $6.

With family being at the forefront of Culver's brand, it only makes sense that the children's menu would be substantial. It doesn't just offer a few meals to satiate the bellies of fast-growing humans but presents a selection of six different meals that picky eaters will appreciate. Every kid's meal at Culver's comes with one scoop of frozen custard, along with a drink, a side, and a Scoopie token. These tokens can later be exchanged for sports gear, making the price of around $7 a pretty decent value.

Culver's and In-N-Out have different cultures

One stark difference between Culver's and In-N-Out actually has nothing to do with the food. The two cultures are worlds apart, with Culver's having more of a small town feel, whereas In-N-Out has a classic beachy, West Coast vibe. You don't have to bite into a burger before noticing that In-N-Out has some serious street cred and a leg up on Culver's regarding reputation. Word of mouth and pop culture has influenced Americans' hunger for a Double-Double.

In-N-Out references have been sprinkled throughout many generations' media, which has created the cult following it has today. Back in 1998, "The Big Lebowski" name-dropped the "good burgers," and Paris Hilton made headlines when she risked a DUI for an In-N-Out Burger almost 10 years later. These are just two examples of how totally different audiences have been put on to the burger joint over the years. It's kind of hard for a Midwestern small town burger business to compete with The Dude, especially with its family-centric values.