Why Sonic Wouldn't Exist Without Root Beer

Sonic is known for its extensive menu featuring burgers, hot dogs, limeades, and other flavored beverages. But one beverage holds a special place in the restaurant's history: root beer. Although the popular drive-in eatery ranked #11 out of 50 in a Visual Capitalist list of the most popular fast food brands in America in 2022, Sonic's early days weren't as brag-worthy.

Founded in 1953 by Troy Smith in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Sonic started out as a restaurant called Top Hat Drive-In, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. After opening several Top Hat locations, Smith faced copyright issues with the name and renamed the franchise Sonic in 1959. 

By 1999, 2,000 Sonic restaurants were serving crispy tater tots, Coney dogs, and onion rings to customers all over the U.S. And now, there are more than 3,500 Sonic restaurants in the U.S. in 2022, according to ScrapeHero. So what role did root beer play in Sonic's history? It was years before it became Sonic and even before Smith took over ownership of Top Hat Drive-In.

The drive-in stand that became a drive-in restaurant

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Top Hat was an abandoned small drive-in root beer stand that accompanied a much larger restaurant called the Log House, which was Smith's primary purchase in Shawnee. In addition to root beer, Top Hat also sold hamburgers, hot dogs, and other basic items.

Top Hat operated as a counter-serve stand in which customers walked up to the counter to place their orders. Then they had the option to eat at an outdoor table or in their car. Although it wasn't the primary moneymaker, Top Hat brought in about $700 a week in sales, claims Franchise Chatter.

Smith had an intercom system installed, along with canopies for designated parking spots. He then hired carhops to deliver the food. (And yes, the original carhops wore roller skates, per the Oklahoma Historical Society.) The changes ended up being a wise decision because sales went from $700 a week to $1,750 in the first week, which became more profitable than the Log House, according to The Journal Record. The success eventually led to additional locations in 1956 and its ultimate rebranding to Sonic in 1959.

Although it's unclear if root beer ever left the Sonic menu at any location, it's still available at all Sonic restaurants today, per Sonic. If it weren't for that humble Oklahoma root beer stand, Sonic probably wouldn't exist today.