Sonic boom: “very unique brand” drives to top

As we debate the future of foodservice, post Covid-19, a company founded nearly 70 years ago has enjoyed a surge in popularity, reports Jacquetta Picton

The Covid-19 crisis has changed the way people eat across the US. People are rediscovering the joy of cooking at home, but for those days when that isn’t an option they are also buying more takeout and delivery.

Top Data and Cuebiq teamed up to take a look at just what the most popular fast food in every state is during the pandemic. The preferred fast food destination for diners who have actually left their front doors is Sonic – a concept set up in 1953 when drive-thru was new and exciting and symbolic of a country enjoying unprecedented economic growth and burgeoning consumerism.

A differentiated service

The practicalities of the drive-thru model are obvious for a world of social distancing. Diners stay in their cars, safe in their bubble with other members of their household, yet outside the boring, over familiar, four walls of home. Is this why customers are reaching out to Sonic?

“I am not sure that they are turning to Sonic as a brand directly, although it is a very unique brand with good product, but rather the differentiated service they offer,” say consultant Juan Martinez FCSI, of Profitality based in Miami, Florida. “During this time, people want to still eat out, and what better way to continue to isolate yourself and your family than inside your car. Basically, you maintain your quarantine, by eating in the car.”

And after a surfeit of Netflix there is a kind of retro charm to watching the skating carhops whizzing around, delivering orders, even though they may well be wearing face masks and gloves. Inspire brands, owners of Sonic restaurants since 2018, set out in a statement in April how they envisioned operating in a foodservice landscape body-checked by Covid-19.

“The safety of our teams and guests continues to be our top priority. We have been closely monitoring federal and state guidance and made the decision to cautiously bring our company-owned restaurants back to a full-service model through a phased approach, depending on the local conditions of each location. As before, our restaurants will offer carryout, drive-thru, and delivery where available. As we begin to reopen, we will continue to uphold our robust safety practices in our restaurants, to help ensure that we have the safest environment possible,” it stated.

Staying flexible during the pandemic

Like many other fast-food chains, Sonic shuttered its dining rooms, but it’s 1950’s-style drive-in style carhop service has cemented its place as the preferred fast food destination for US diners in 14 out of the 48 states surveyed (Alaska and Hawaii’s fast-food preferences still have to be discovered). Is there anything foodservice operators could take from this business model?

Ever since Covid-19 hit the front pages in the US and, state by state, restaurants were forced to close their dine-in operations operators had figuring out how to pivot their offering. In flexible foodservice style kitchens turned to takeout and delivery to keep them going until now, when they are being allowed to reopen. Drive-thru and curbside service is a halfway house. Customers remain quarantined in their car, yet if they need refills or an order needs to be modified servers are on hand and it can be done. How can this 1950s concept be brought bang up to date?

“Many retailers and restaurants are already trying curbside service, where the customer pre orders, goes to a designated parking place and the employee takes it to them. The key is how do you do it in an efficient and effective way, where the service times are good and the quality and integrity of the food is maintained,” says Martinez.

“One aspect of this is around delivering optimal service times, where the food is being finished as the car is arriving. Applying the principles of industrial engineering such as lean and ‘just in time’ will help with this.”

Jacquetta Picton


Pictured: Sonic Drive-In, Indianapolis, US

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