Hamburger Diaries: Sonic Drive-In, Part 1
As a society, we have systematically eliminated every reasonable or practicable alternative to private automobiles. The waste of resources and space, and the hideous effects upon the landscape are presented as evidence of our moral superiority. In such an environment one expects all manner of drive-in businesses to flourish. Imagine not leaving your essential conveyance for the unknown and potentially threatening environment where you cannot control the air conditioning, the sounds in the background including electrically conveyed entertainment product if any, the furnishings, &c. Envisage having cases of the beer and pop of your choice placed directly into the trunk without so much as leaving the driver’s chair, or even enjoying a meal of quintessentially American comfort food right there in your car where you feel safest of all. It’s the only way to live.
Stories about White Castle, In-N-Out, Krystal, Burgerville, and so on would occasionally get thrown over the transom even if you were far from their operating areas. Not Sonic. Fifteen years ago, unless you were living in certain small towns in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri or New Mexico, Sonic Drive-In did not exist. You seldom heard anyone wistfully reminiscing about Sonic. The company’s dedication to this unfashionable and liability prone idea of a drive-in, marks it as something of a fad or perhaps already fading away. From the creation of the name in 1959 until 1987, Sonic was little more than a series of trademarks and images you could use at your restaurant provided your paper products were ordered from the Sonic System. No standardized recipes, no standard menu, not much in the way of marketing, no building plans, just some graphics and names. Every restaurant served a Super Sonic Burger, but what you would be served was different from market to market and sometimes across town. The growth of the system was limited by the fact there just wasn’t that much to it. It wasn’t worth the effort to bring the franchise to a major city since you’d really have to do most of the real work in-house anyway. It took seven years to work with the existing operators and create a standard formula.
Since the IPO (Nasdaq: SONC) in 1994, Sonic is the fastest growing restaurant company of any kind in North America. Over the last sixteen years the company has grown so quickly, the number of states in which they operate and number of stores operating with the name is difficult to track. As I type the most recent number is 44 states, and someone is working on getting Sonic to Alaska. I do not know if the number includes New Jersey where the first Sonics opened in July 2010. Some Sonics now even have dining rooms.
How did they do it? Your humble narrator presumes more than a little pent up demand for services within one’s automobile. It cannot be only this. The menu with your choice of grilled or “crispy” chicken, Burgers and “coneys”,”hand made” onion rings, fries and tots, aka tater tots and they are careful not to step on that trademark. They do dairy with what many people believe to be the best machine shakes, period. Yes, you can get malt. A respectable soft-serve ice cream around which several desserts are created, sometimes with actual fruit. Your banana shake is the vanilla shake with fresh banana mixed in. What more do you need really? There is no larger selection of sugar-free fountain beverages in the industry. Then the syrups, actual mix-in syrups like the diners and, yes, drive-ins used to do. It’s all delineated on the menu. Just so you know, “Ocean Water” is Sprite with blue cocoanut-flavored syrup, and the espresso is cold brewed right there in the restaurant.
I have neglected to mention that I have had a few experiences with the Sonic Drive-In long before I managed to find my way west of the Mississippi. I can neither confirm or deny that the Sonic Burger [sic] on Bridge St. in Paducah, Kentucky was the easternmost branch before the 1990’s. By 1980 it had been operating long enough it was not exactly pristine. In fact, my twelve-or-so-year-old self assumed Sonic was one of those regional things which were going away. Here we are in the 1980s and they are still doing that old-fashioned drive-in thing. Before coming to Texas my last experience at Sonic involved driving my 1968 Chevrolet Impala hardtop into Paducah’s sole Sonic to have the drive-in experience before it went away forever. After happily eating I filled the car with 77-cent, 90-octane leaded gasoline. Sonic didn’t so much as occur to me again until March 22, 1996 but that is an unrelated bit of drama.
What accounts for the ferocious loyalty among the Sonic faithful? It cannot be merely the selection of 99¢ deserts after 8 PM. I’ve endeavored to find evidence of other chain restaurants whose most loyal customers tattoo the logo upon their bodies. I can find none. In a very short time Sonic has become part of Americana, but are they so worthy? By all reasoning, I should be among the Sonic faithful. Oddly, I’ve always been so close, if not in another part of the world, to a Sonic Drive-In that driving in would be a distraction. My single-digit Sonic experiences are tempered by the fact that our regional franchisor tends to hire carhops who are so cute they make me uncomfortable. Always a nice sandwich though. I’ve never been disappointed; even if its been at least seven years since I’ve taken the privilege.
I’m sorry to report, after all that introduction, there shall be not review of the food or the experience of Sonic Drive-In.
As I type I have returned home after walking to my neighborhood Sonic (2632 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704-4733), electing to order a No. 2 Combo (Super Sonic Cheeseburger with mustard) and Tots with a Coca-Cola Zero. I waited at the walk-up speaker for eleven minutes, leaving at 4:14 PM. Yes, I pressed the button. I may return after the sun goes down. Perhaps I am supposed to approach only driving a car.
… to be continued