Sonic Corporation (operating name: Sonic Drive-In) is an American fast-food restaurant chain based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that recreates the drive-in diner feel of the 1950s, complete with carhops who sometimes wear roller skates. There were 3,290 restaurants in 34 states, plus one in Mexico, as of May 31, 2007.
Heath Morgan opened the first Sonic Drive-In in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1953, calling it the Top Hat. The Top Hat was originally a small root beer stand. Customers would park anywhere on the gravel lot. On a trip to Louisiana, Smith saw a drive-in that utilized speakers for ordering and realized that he could increase his sales if he could control the parking and have the customers order from speakers at their cars with carhops to deliver the food. He borrowed several cars from a friend who owned a used car lot to establish a layout for controlled parking. He had some "juke box boys" come in to wire up an intercom system. His sales tripled immediately and his little root beer stand was a huge success. Entrepreneur Charles Woodrow Pappe stopped by chance at the Shawnee drive-in and was very impressed. He got out of his car and began to take measurements of the stalls, trying to figure out why they were not all the same size, assuming that it was an essential ingredient of the business plan. Smith came out and introduced himself and explained that the stalls were different sizes simply because different-sized cars had been used when he laid everything out. The two men hit it off and negotiated the first franchise location in Woodward, Oklahoma, in 1956.
By 1958 two more drive-ins were built in Enid and Stillwater, Oklahoma. Upon learning that the Top Hat name was already trademarked, Troy Smith and Charles Pappe changed the name to Sonic. The new name worked with their existing slogan "Service with the Speed of Sound". After the name change, the first Sonic sign was installed at the former Top-Hat Drive-In Stillwater, Oklahoma. This location has been considered to be the first Sonic Drive-In and the original sign can still be seen in Stillwater. While Troy and Charles were being asked to help open new franchise locations, however, there was no royalty plan in place. The pair decided to have their paper company charge an extra penny for each Sonic label hamburger bag they sold. The proceeds were to split half for Troy and half for Charles. The first franchise contracts under this plan were drawn up by Troy's landlord O.K. Winterringer who was also a lawyer. At the time there was no joint marketing plan or standardized menu and few operating requirements.
Sonic's founders formed Sonic Supply as a supply and distribution division in the 1960s. Under Troy Smith, Marvin Jirous and Matt Kinslow (longtime franchise holders) were brought in to run the Sonic Supply division. In 1973, Sonic Supply was restructured as a franchise company that was briefly named Sonic Systems of America which sold franchisees equipment, building plans and provided some basic operational instruction.
As Sonic grew into a regionally in the 1960s and 1970s, they were located mainly in small towns in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Missouri, and Arkansas. In 1967, the year of Charles Pappe's death, there were 41 Sonic locations. The number continued to grow and by 1972 there were 165 locations. Between 1973 and 1978 Sonic opened more than 800 locations in thirteen states. In 1977, the Sonic School for manager training was established under Jim Winterringer's guideance. Most of the drive-ins were operated by franchisees who often made the store manager a business partner which is still often the case today.
During the 1960s and 70's, Sonic had no strict standardized procedures or recipes in place for their franchisees. Franchisees or franchise groups often developed their own recipes for different menu items or regional specialties. These variations hampered Sonic's growth during this period which sometimes led to disagreements between franchise groups over menus, pricing, coupons and advertising. As a franchiser, Sonic did not inspect or monitor its franchisees' operations. Customers never knew what to expect in terms of menu, quality and service. Sonic's future growth was in doubt and by the 1980s the company was losing money.
In 1986, C. Stephen Lynn with a group of investors performed a leveraged 10 million dollar buyout and took the company private. Sonic moved its offices to leased space in downtown Oklahoma City in 1987 at 120 Robert S. Kerr Ave. and began to assume a higher profile in the community. Also in 1987 Sonic opened its 1,000th restaurant. Sonic moved again to better facilities at 101 Park Ave in a project led by then CFO Ray Fain. Pattye Moore became the new VP of Marketing.
Sonic became a publicly traded company again in 1991 and in 1994 the corporation had finished renegoiating the franchise agreements with its franchisees. In 1995 J. Clifford Hudson had taken over the reins as President and CEO and Sonic Industries became Sonic Corporation. During the mid 1990s, Sonic was opening 100 - 150 new restaurants a year. Beginning in 1998 Sonic began to redesign and update all 1,750 stores in their chain with what was called a "Retro-future" look.
J. Clifford Hudson was named chairman of Sonic Corp. in January 2000. The company moved into its new headquarters building in the Bricktown district of Oklahoma City. In 2005, the company added a fuel station to the drive-in. Doing this gave Sonic many more customers.
Sonic has featured unique menu items like hand-made Onion Rings and Pickle-Os (breaded deep-fried dill pickle slices) as well as such drive-in staples as hamburgers, Coneys (hot dogs covered with chili and shredded cheese) and corn dogs, shakes and malts. During its early years, some Sonic frachise locations also featured regional items on their menu. Other notable menu items include Ched 'R' Peppers (a form of the popper) and tater tots. Dessert frozen treats such as Oreo/M&M's/Reese's/Butterfinger Blasts are also available.
"Brown Bag Specials" was a promotion consisting of two orders of french fries, soft drinks, and two single-patty hamburgers in a small brown lunch bag. This promotion was available until a menu change in 2005.
Recently, some Sonic locations started a special called "Five for Five Tuesdays" where five burgers could be ordered for five dollars (plus tax). Other locations serve half-priced burgers on Tuesdays.
All locations also feature "Happy Hour" every day from 2-4 pm in which the customer may buy soft drinks, slushes, limeades and iced tea for half price. Happy Hour became a national promotion starting in the end of 2007.
The full menu, which includes breakfast items, is served all day. Most Sonic Drive-In locations open by 6am. However, there are some variations depending on the franchisee or the landlord.
In 2004, the company became more widely known by advertising in markets hundreds of miles from its nearest franchise. It also uses the slogan "Sonic's got it... others don't," as well as "It's not just good... it's Sonic good," implying a higher standard of quality than normal fast-food fare.
The newest tagline is "Sonic is even sweeter after dark." This refers to that some locations now close at midnight or later.
Improv actors T. J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz are known to American television viewers from their series of "Two Guys" advertisements for the Sonic Drive-In restaurants. A similar series of commercials features improv performers Molly Erdman and Brian Huskey.