Sonic Drive-In has done a great job of making sure that everybody in America knows its name. Through its memorable advertisements and unique concept, it’s become one of the country’s most popular chains, with more than 3,500 locations in 43 states. But we bet that there are a lot of things you didn’t know about Sonic.
Sonic is unlike all other fast food chains, in that (as its name might imply) it’s a drive-in. Customers can sit in parked cars and place their orders via intercom, and the food is brought out to them by real-life carhops — some of the last in the country. The ’50s throwback vibe is a big aspect of its success, but when founder Troy Smith introduced the carhop concept in the early 1950s, it was still a novel idea.
After coming home from World War II, Smith found work as a milkman, but later switched to delivering bread because loaves of bread were lighter than bottles of milk. He used the money he saved to buy a diner in Shawnee, Oklahoma, called Cottage Café, which he sold to buy a restaurant on a nearby five-acre parcel of land that would, in 1959, become the very first Sonic.
Today, Sonic is best known for its retro theme, its drive-in concept, its happy hour, and its carnival-like menu items, including onion rings, corndogs, slushes, milkshakes, and chili dogs. They also offer a wide variety of breakfast items, and their soda fountain allows you to order thousands of different drink combinations. And if you’d prefer not to order drive-in style, many also offer patio seating and drive-thrus. Read on for nine things you may not have known about Sonic Drive-In.
Sonic’s Founder Got His Start with a Steakhouse
In 1953, founder Troy Smith purchased a walk-up root beer stand called the Top Hat that had an adjacent log house in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He kept the root beer stand as-is and converted the log cabin in into a steakhouse, thinking that it would bring in more profits than root beer. But selling root beer, burgers, and hot dogs from the root beer stand ended up earning him a lot more money, so he shut the steakhouse down.
Their Use of an Intercom Ordering System Was a Stroke of Luck
Customers could originally park anywhere they wanted and walk up to the root beer stand to place their orders, but after visiting a Louisiana drive-in where customers ordered via intercom, Smith had the “light bulb moment.” He hired some jukebox repairmen (so ’50s!) to install intercom wiring in the parking lot, and sales immediately tripled. The novel concept soon caught the eye of an entrepreneur named Charles Pappe, who negotiated the first franchise location in 1956.