Indeed, the pandemic became an opportunity to showcase the Sonic experience, San Pedro says, particularly to new guests. No longer needed for commutes or shuttling to activities, cars came to represent cherished moments away from the home, whether with a blanket in the back for the family or maybe for a parent in need of a moment of quiet. Perhaps more than any other restaurant concept, Sonic was prepared to capitalize on that, especially because its mobile app satisfied a variety of needs, both in how guests received service—whether drive-in, drive thru, curbside, or delivery—and in what they chose to order, without making them feel rushed.
“You can order the food you want, how you want it, and get some great rewards by using the app, but still have that connection to the carhop and the friendliness in your car,” San Pedro says. “Whether you want to bring a blanket or whether you want to bring your dog, your slippers, whatever you want to wear, you create that dining environment and that experience.”
In the first five months of the pandemic, Sonic received more than 10,000 compliments from guests about its personalized service and how important it was in a time when everyone felt disconnected. And in response to a flood of guest requests, Sonic added a tipping function to its mobile app so customers could show their appreciation to carhops in a contactless way. About 1,000 locations are up and running with tipping, and San Pedro says the goal is for the whole system to be on board by the beginning of Q3.
A nonlinear approach
With a quick rebound and a business model well positioned to meet the new service realities of the pandemic, Sonic had the luxury of playing more offense than defense through the course of 2020. Luckily for the company, it had spent the previous few years “building the plumbing,” Saroch says, to accommodate a more efficient operation, particularly one with mobile ordering functionality. That included making the third-party delivery process more seamless for operators, rolling out a new POS system-wide, and working with franchisees on a variety of back-end needs that could allow for the mobile-order-ahead experience.
Mobile ordering has been a game-changer for Sonic. San Pedro says the order-ahead app now accounts for about 11 percent of sales—exceeding $530 million in 2020—and that Sonic recently added web ordering to widen the scope of customers ordering digitally. The app allows Sonic to be “nonlinear” in its structure, she says, meaning guests don’t have to wait in line for their food, thereby reducing service times.
“When somebody comes in mobile-order-ahead, they are like Sonic Prime,” Saroch says, referencing Amazon’s platform. “They move to the front of the line. When they come in and check in at Sonic, it rings inside the drive-in and their order moves to the top of the line, and therefore we are able to make it and get it out to the customer much faster.”
This ability affects Sonic’s approach to growth, as San Pedro says the brand plans to continue to invest in innovation around the footprint, specifically considering consumer occasions and need states. And a big piece to that puzzle is the new Delight prototype, which Sonic revealed last summer. The prototype, which San Pedro says represents the modernization of the drive-in and offers a “sense of summertime,” accomplishes Sonic’s “Oasis” mentality by creating a space with multiple service points and bright, bold colors. There are pops of red, blue, and yellow, and there’s a blue glass tower with a brightly lit cherry on top in a nod to the company’s signature Cherry Limeade. There’s a drive thru, 18 drive-in docks that are wider than older models, a walk-up window, and a covered outdoor patio with string lights and lawn games that invites guests to stay and enjoy themselves if they wish.
“People want choices. If I’m in a hurry and I don’t have a lot of time, I may want to go through the stall, but I may also want to go through the drive thru, and I may sometimes want to take my time and hang out with my kids in the car after I get my food,” San Pedro says. “We’ve really been homing in on what’s the right number of stalls that allows for optimum throughput without over-investment.”
Sonic’s update to its drive-in format isn’t just to keep things fresh and fun; it’s also to keep ahead of the crush of competitors looking to jump into the drive-in game. Brand after brand shuffled the deck on their forward progress once they realized the digitally powered, off-premises experience that became de rigeur in the wake of COVID-19 was here to stay, and everyone from Shake Shack and Taco Bell to Burger King and Sweetgreen revealed new store renderings that included drive-in as a component of their restaurants of the future.
Neither San Pedro nor Saroch are concerned that the newfound attention in drive-in will steal away Sonic’s primary point of differentiation. They both point out that adding a drive-in isn’t as simple as sticking a menu and speaker box in front of a parking spot.
“It took years for us to build this,” Saroch says. “There are a lot of points inside a drive-in, if you go inside, that are critical to being able to execute on a consistent basis. And I think for anybody trying to change their model, it’s going to take time and effort.”