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Nick Schulz left little to chance Thursday in his quest to be the first person served at Santa Rosa's new In-N-Out Burger.

The patty-loving real estate agent parked his Subaru at the drive-through lane Wednesday and returned to the vehicle an hour before the grand opening Thursday morning, his pole position secured.

A regular at the Rohnert Park In-N-Out, the 60-year-old had urged the burger chain to come to Santa Rosa for years, even praying with his wife — a former missionary like himself — that the city would grant the site approval.

"It's a company that knows exactly what they're doing. They have a target and they hit it every time," Schulz said. "I've never had a bad meal at an In-N-Out."

Such zeal for a fast-food restaurant would generally be a sure sign to get a life. But In-N-Outs seems to widely inspire such devotion.

Certainly the new location near the corner of Steele Lane and County Center Drive was besieged with customers at lunchtime Thursday.

The drive-through line snaked more than 30-vehicles long onto the street. In-N-Out employees acted as traffic cops for incoming cars. And inside the restaurant, dozens of white-clad workers whirled behind the counter keeping up with a line stretching out the door.

Lindsay Van Midde, wearing a In-N-Out paper hat, was delighted that the restaurant she fell in love with on childhood trips to Southern California was now a quick walk from her office.

"I only work six minutes away," she said, saying her co-workers had been anticipating the opening for months.

Such fans have elite company. In-N-Out's devotees have included gourmets like Julia Child and Thomas Keller, the chef behind Napa's uber-expensive French Laundry, said Stacy Perman, author of "In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules."

Keller told Perman he still remembers his first taste of In-N-Out, a cheeseburger that he ordered in Los Angeles in 1991.

Of course, he then washed it down with some Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, but otherwise Keller sounds like just another In-N-Out-loving everyman. For French Laundry's 12th anniversary in 2006, he ordered 300 In-N-Out burgers for his staff, according to Perman's book.

"In-N-Out has a huge following among foodies," Perman said in a phone interview Thursday. "I can't tell you how many people would recall the first time they went to In-N-Out."

It's hard to imagine too many Michelin-starred chefs cooing about McDonald's, though in some ways the two restaurants are twins.

Both burger joints were born in Southern California in 1948, Perman said. While McDonald's exploded into the publicly traded giant that it is today, In-N-Out remained a family business, growing incrementally with a cultish following that has spread by word of mouth.

With the exception of adding Dr. Pepper and 7UP, the In—N—Out menu hasn't changed since the Truman administration, Perman said. They have a formula and they stick to it.

"They have these eve- important core principals that are based on quality, service and cleanliness," she said.

The Santa Rosa store is just the 249th member of the chain, compared to 30,000-some global locations for McDonalds.

For customers such as Donna Cherlin, the more important difference is in the food. In-N-Outs have no microwaves, heat lamps or infra-reds, Perman said. The burger don't hit the grill untill they're ordered, and the fries are pressed freshly.

"It's the only fast-food place I ever eat at," said Cherlin, a saleswoman for Advent Office Furniture. "It's on a different plane."

Not everyone loves it. Critics fought the Santa Rosa location for reasons ranging from claims it would encourage obesity at nearby schools to worries it would worsen traffic at the heavily traveled intersection.

As of Thursday afternoon,it's first day open to the public, traffic apparently wasn't badly impacted. Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Doug Schlief said he wasn't aware of any complaints.

The Santa Rosa location is In-N-Out's third in Sonoma County. The Rohnert Park store opened in 1996, and the Petaluma outlet in 2006.