Introduction to Sonic Drive-In


Burger at the drive-in

Sonic Drive-In (or Sonic America’s Drive-In) as the name implies, is an American drive-in fast food hamburger restaurant chain founded in Oklahoma City, where its headquarters are also based. Customers enjoy the quick service provided by the roller-skating carhops (waiters and waitresses who bring food to customers in their vehicles) as well as its mouthwatering burgers, fries, onion rings, tater tots and their signature Extra-Long Cheese Coneys.

Troy N. Smith: starting Sonic virtually from scratch

Ex-World War II soldier Troy N. Smith Sr. founded Sonic Drive-In in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1953. Originally as a small root beer stand and steakhouse called Top Hat (which he established along with a business partner), he found out that the root beer, burgers and hotdogs were selling very well so he concentrated on them more.

He got the idea of a drive-in restaurant when his customers would park their cars in front of Top Hat, and then walk up to the stand to buy food and drinks. Another factor was his visit to Louisiana. While he was there, he saw a drive-in restaurant where customers in their cars would place their orders through a two-way speaker.

The success of Sonic Drive-In: franchising, expansion and other projects

Back home in Oklahoma, Smith would be on his way to reform his little establishment into a drive-in only restaurant. He devised the system of controlled parking so that customers would have more convenience while ordering. He also got his restaurant’s parking lot installed with intercom speakers. The carhops would then be provided with roller skates for faster delivery of food to the clients. When the revamped Top Hat was opened, it was a smashing success. Entrepreneur Charles Pappe liked what he saw in Top Hat, so he and Smith agreed to have the restaurant franchised. When the name Top Hat was already taken, the two men came up with a new one, “Sonic.” It went well with the company’s first slogan “Service with the Speed of Sound.” One call from the intercom and your food will be delivered fresh and fast.

In the 1960s Smith and Pappe established Sonic’s supply and distribution arm Sonic Supply. In 1967, Charles Pappe died; at the time of his death Sonic expanded with a total of 41 drive-in’s. In 1973, Sonic became a franchise company called Sonic Systems of America. It went public and began trading stocks over-the-counter. As the company grew bigger, it led to its first TV commercial in 1977.

Sonic Drive-In

In 1983, Smith and Sonic’s board of directors elected Stephen Lynn as the company’s new president and CEO. Under Lynn’s direction came to the unification of its major franchisees in its field structure. Three years later, Sonic went back to being a private corporation until 1991 when it became a publicly traded company anew. In 1998, Sonic underwent a full “retrofitting” project, giving all their restaurants a retro-futuristic look.

Another project of Sonic was the Sonic Beach, which opened its first two locations in Florida (one in Homestead, and another in Fort Lauderdale) in 2011, which markedly lack the typical Sonic drive-in feature as they were built close to the beach. Instead, outdoor seating was installed. It was in Sonic Beach restaurants where beer and wine are served.

Sonic is also associated with NASCAR, as it sponsored car racing stars Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kevin Harvick.

Today, Sonic boasts over 3,500 restaurants in 43 states. Its famed prompt and rapid service has earned citations such as the recognition bestowed by the quick-service fast food-oriented publication QSR Magazine. It lists Sonic as one of the 50 fast casual restaurants with the quickest service.

Even when their original slogan has been long replaced, Sonic still stands true to it — doing service by speed of sound. Quick, delicious, affordable and satisfying — that’s the Sonic way.

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