I went to Sonic drive-in and saw why the chain saw huge growth during the pandemic

Sonic
  • Sonic increased sales by over $1 billion during the pandemic.
  • Experts credit the chain’s drive-in model and broad menu for its success.
  • I went there to try out the food and drive-in experience.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Sonic’s drive-in model thrived during the pandemic as competitors closed dining rooms.

Sonic now hiring sign
Sonic drive-in sign.

I visited a Henrietta, New York location to try out the drive-in service that was so successful.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Sonic operates a drive-thru, dining room, and drive-in. The drive-in has 15 to 20 parking spots with their own speakers to order food, which is brought outside by the car hop.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drive-in area is under a covering that keeps it comfortable in hot temperatures or rainy weather.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drive-in section is just across the parking lot from the entrance.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

There’s also a small outdoor seating area.

Sonic drive-in seating
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Normally customers would also have the option of ordering and eating inside, but the dining room was still closed.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Each drive-in spot is essentially a drive-thru in miniature, with a sign displaying Sonic’s massive menu. Customers press the red button to signal that they are ready to order, and a worker will take their order through the speaker.

Sonic drive-in screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Most of the sign is a static display, but there is also a digital screen that shares information. In this case, it said that some ingredients were not available because of supply issues across the entire industry.

Sonic drive-in order screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

I ordered through Sonic’s app before I arrived, which gave me time to look through the extensive menu that experts say is key to the chain’s success.

Sonic app
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

The menu has typical fast food fare – burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries.

Sonic app
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Unlike many competitors, it also has a wide selection of snacks including different types of tater tots, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and soft pretzels. Analysts said that the comfort food not tied to a specific meal time may have also contributed to Sonic’s success.

Sonic app order
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

Sonic’s drinks are a major part of its appeal to customers. Sonic’s president told Insider that 25% of all orders are drink-only, and there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations on the menu.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

There are so many options to add to a drink that it’s almost overwhelming. I finally went with a diet coke with cranberry flavor and lime.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Once you finish ordering on the app, check out and pay.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The app lets you know that the order has been accepted.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

When you arrive, the app prompts you to say where you are parked. Each spot in the drive-in has a corresponding number.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The app gives updates about order status while you wait.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Once you’re checked in on the app, you can also see your order status on the screen. The screen informed me when a carhop was heading out with my order.

Sonic drive-in order screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Carhops bring out food and drinks to customers waiting in parking spots.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

A server brought out my food and drinks within a few minutes, boxed up conveniently for transport.

Sonic drive-in food
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drinks, a milkshake and a flavored coke, were probably the highlight of our trip – and definitely worth a visit on their own.

Sonic drive-in drinks
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Some people eat in their cars, but I chose to drive home because the snacks I ordered were fairly messy.

Sonic drive-in parking spots
Sonic restaurants have over 20 drive-in spots.

While it’s not the prettiest food in pictures, Sonic delicious comfort food options that are perfect for sharing.

Sonic drive-in takeout
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

After my visit, I’m not surprised that Sonic grew so much during the pandemic. It sells snacks and drinks that make a perfect treat any time of the day, and the drive-in has very minimal contact with other people for safety.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

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This is how Sonic increased sales by $1 billion during the pandemic, according to the drive-in chain’s president

Sonic
  • Sonic increased sales by over 20% in 2020.
  • The chain leveraged the drive-in to attract customers as dining rooms closed.
  • Analysts also point to Sonic’s broad menu as a reason for growth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Sonic had one of its best years ever in 2020, with a business model that was in the perfect position to weather the pandemic – and even thrive during it.

Sonic sales boomed in 2020, growing 21% to $5.7 billion, according to Technomic and reported by Restaurant Business. The chain added over $1 billion in sales over 2019 figures.

Read more: Subway franchisees say a new contract forces them to sign away their ability to criticize the struggling chain

Sonic President Claudia San Pedro, who took over in 2018, attributed this success to the fact that Sonic is “an entire experience,” she told Insider. “Some restaurants are a transaction to fill a function, but Sonic is about the experience.” Customers can eat in their car at the drive-in, and order comfort food from a massive menu.

Drive-ins were perfect for 2020

Sonic drive-in parking spots
Sonic restaurants have over 20 drive-in spots.

Fast-food chains had a good year and grew drive-thru traffic substantially, but Sonic’s drive-in left it uniquely positioned to benefit. Each Sonic “has in essence at least 25 drive-thru opportunities and eating spaces,” San Pedro told Insider in a phone call.

Sonic’s restaurants are set up like typical fast-food locations, with a dining room and drive-thru lane. The notable difference is its line of drive-in parking spots, each equipped with a speaker and menu board where customers can order.

“In a traditional drive-thru, there’s only one place an order can be taken,” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski previously told Insider. “That creates huge bottlenecks.” Some chains, including Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, are solving the bottleneck problem with mobile ordering stations, while Sonic got around the issue with dozens of drive-in spots.

Sonic already had many of the features that consumers wanted more than ever last year, Kalinowski told Insider. Customers “couldn’t eat in, but you could load up the family in the car and go to Sonic,” he said.

San Pedro similarly emphasized how important the drive-in experience was during the pandemic. The drive-in can act as a drive-thru, where customers simply get their food and leave, but it gets people out of their homes during periods of work from home and school at home. For example, San Pedro said that Sonic saw a huge jump in families eating lunch together at the drive-in.

A menu with variety

Sonic has a huge menu, with fast food staples like burgers and chicken sandwiches, but also snack foods like onion rings and tater tots not tied to a specific meal time. Kalinowski said the broad menu with popular categories made Sonic a popular choice at a time when many competing options weren’t available.

The drink menu in particular is massive, with a variety of sodas, lemonade, milkshakes, and other drinks with additional add-ins. San Pedro said that there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations at Sonic, and 25% of tickets are drink-only.

Ice cream sales were also a surprise area of growth, San Pedro said. They thought “ice cream might be more discretionary in a pandemic, but during stressful times you want comfort food,” she told Insider. Most of Sonic’s menu fits comfortably under a comfort food designation.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider