15 Things I Learned From Touring Sonic's Headquarters
Known as "America's Drive-In," Sonic has well over 3,500 locations in the United States. The roots of Sonic go back to the early 1950s after founder Troy Smith -- a former milkman -- had opened up a few restaurants in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Smith's third restaurant, The Log House, had an accompanying stand known as the Top Hat, which focused on hot dogs and root beer. Before long, Smith noticed that his fast food offerings were far more successful than his sit-down establishment, and he began to focus on the Top Hat. However, when going to trademark their restaurant's name, he and partner Charles Woodrow Pappe had learned that "Top Hat" was already trademarked, which gave way to the Sonic name.
When touring Sonic headquarters in Oklahoma City -- located across the street from Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, where the Oklahoma City Dodgers play -- I spoke with high-ranking executives to get 15 surprising facts about the Oklahoma-based chain.
No. 1 - When you visualize a Sonic Drive-In parking lot, you see the cars parked at an angle. This dates back to the Top Hat days of the company and was an innovation from founder Troy Smith. This had to do with the cars not lining up, or else they would form in a straight line and people would be able to talk from end to end.
No. 2 - The first Sonic sign was put up in 1959 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but the first true SONIC location is debatable. Many people speculate that this was in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
No. 3 - While Sonic has an extensive menu, many items have been removed from it over the years. "The Whopper," a fish sandwich, was on the menu in the late 1950s and early 1960s until a certain competitor objected. Packs of cigarettes could also be ordered.
No. 4 - Television commercials for Sonic these days feature "The Two Guys" -- yes, that is their official name -- and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt stars Ellie Kemper and Jane Krakowski. But these are not the first famous faces of the company, as prior celebrity spokespeople include Frankie Avalon, Art Linkletter, and "Happy Days" paternal figure Tom Bosley. Avalon's white-letter sweater and faux-automobile from the commercials are still on-hand in Oklahoma City.
No. 5 - Sonic is currently in 47 of our 50 states, missing the three most northeastern territories. Troy Smith went to almost every ribbon-cutting before his passing in October 2009. Smith had thought that he would be lucky to have 50 SONIC locations. According to Becky Rickard, there are a good number of third and fourth-generation SONIC franchisees.
No. 6 - One of the things that differentiates Sonic from other quick-service restaurants is that many of its servers are wearing rollerskates. While skating is optional, skating servers must pass a skating test and wear a helmet until deemed proficient. The company holds an annual Sonic Skate-Off national competition in Oklahoma City each year; the next one will be in August 2018.
No. 7 - At any given time, according to chef Scott Uehlein, there are around 40 products in development for Sonic. The Slinger spent two years in development. The company often looks to food trucks help inspire "the next thing."
No. 8 - In collaboration with The Mushroom Council, Sonic launched the first-ever blended burger -- a beef and mushroom blend -- for a quick-serve restaurant chain. According to Eric Davis of The Mushroom Council, this will help create future generations of "blendatarians."
No. 9 - The conference rooms within Sonic headquarters are named after items on the menu. So there are literally meetings held in "French Toast Sticks."
No. 10 - The Sonic offices also include a state-of-the-art Culinary Innovation Center, built in 2014. It includes a replica drive-in kitchen so chefs can prepare items just like any Sonic location could.
No. 11 - SONIC's slush was originally mixed in five-pound pickle buckets. This was recently reinstituted into the preparation process, ensuring some savory flavors getting into the mix. Meanwhile, if it tastes like Sonic's onion rings have a hint of vanilla to them, it is because the batter was prepared in vats that carried vanilla.
No. 12 - A beverage flavoring can go through 25 iterations, per Erin Buono of the Culinary Innovation team. The craziest flavor Buono ever had to recreate on-site was Jelly Belly Butter Popcorn.
No. 13 - One of the first locations of Sonic was in Enid, Oklahoma. The company needs photos of this location and is considering holding a Facebook contest -- with prizes -- for anyone who might have said images.
No. 14 - There is a SONIC coffee table book on the history of the company. It was written by Dr. Bob Blackburn and it is currently in its second printing.
No. 15 - CEO Cliff Hudson's go-to items on the menu? The onion rings and the classic Sonic signature slinger. America's Drive-In does have secret menu items, which you can find via searching around the web.
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Sonic paid for the travel costs and some of the food of writer Darren Paltrowitz during his visit to Oklahoma City.