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Cruising the Sonic
May 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
Last week, we went to hear Wendy and the other members of the Cypress Falls High School choir perform their year-end concert at a local church. The concert was a repeat of the performance the group put on at their successful appearance at the University Interscholastic League competition.
During the performance, the graduating seniors, who were singing with the choir for the last time, were presented one by one. Just at the moment when emotions were overflowing and the sanctuary was about to turn into Kleenex country, the seniors did a marvelous rendition of "You Can't Stop the Beat" from the musical "Hairspray."
Watching the rite of passage that Wendy will be taking in the all-too-near future, I thought back to those years in my life.
High school in a small southwest Connecticut town almost forty years ago was a lot different than high school in Houston in the twenty-first century, but as I worked in Texas during the summer before my senior year, I at least got a taste of the high school experience in the Lone Star State.
Part of that experience was drive-ins and burger joints, both outlawed in New Canaan (possibly because no one there knew what goes into a decent hamburger). Elsewhere, high-school kids could, and did, spend hours at these places, socializing over Dr Peppers, burgers and some French fries.
At the drive-ins, where the proprietor wanted to keep the parking spaces open for paying customers, it became the custom to slowly drive through, checking out the action. "Cruising" became a popular custom and one of the popular places to do it in a number of Oklahoma and Texas towns was the Sonic Drive-In. Today, countless people in the southern United States can remember "cruising the Sonic."
Though I am long past the cruising stage, I still enjoy a visit to the Sonic. The made-to-order burgers are tasty and you can get a foot-long coney with all the extras or a soft drink in just about any flavor you can imagine. Plus, if you have a taste for them, you can get tater tots or onion rings instead of French fries.
Sonic got its start fifty-two years ago in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Troy Smith, a World War II veteran determined to make a career in food service, was taking his third shot at the restaurant business. The earlier attempts, a café too tiny to produce a livable income and a premature foray into a fried chicken chain, hadn't worked out, and he was running a steakhouse. On a corner of the steak house's parking lot was a little root beer stand called the Top Hat Drive-In. Smith intended to tear the Top Hat down to make space for more steakhouse customers, but decided to keep it open until he was ready to expand.
Unlike the vision most people have of an American drive-in, the Top Hat didn't have carhops or speakers. Customers would park their cars and place their orders at walk-up window. They could then enjoy their food at one of the picnic tables or eat in their car.
Smith was pleasantly surprised to find the Top Hat was taking in about $700 a week. In 2005, that would be about $5,000 a week and pretty good money for a little walk-up. Abandoning thoughts of tearing down the Top Hat, Smith began to look for ways to help it grow and attract new customers.
A trip to Louisiana brought the inspiration for an improvement. While in the Bayou State, Smith saw a restaurant at which customers used an intercom to place orders from their cars. When he returned to Shawnee, Smith had a similar system built for the Top Hat.
The improvements didn't stop there. The Top Hat got a canopy under which customers could park and carhops to deliver their orders.
Carhops were already a well-established drive-in tradition by 1953. There are competing claims as to where and when the first server hopped on the running board of a customer's car to guide them to a parking place and take their order, but there were definitely carhops working by the early 1930s.
In the first week after Smith's improvements were completed in 1954, the Top Hat took in $1,750, almost $12,500 in today's dollars. All of a sudden, the little root beer stand was more profitable than Smith's steakhouse.
The next phase in Sonic's history began when Charlie Pappe from Woodward, Oklahoma, came to Shawnee to visit friends. Like Troy Smith, Pappe, who managed a Safeway, wanted to be in the restaurant business. While in Shawnee, he stopped to eat at the Top Hat and was impressed by the operation. He went into the restaurant and introduced himself to Troy Smith. As Woodward is over 170 miles northwest of Shawnee, there was no problem with competition, so the two struck an agreement and Pappe opened another Top Hat on May 18, 1956.
The Top Hats were successful, attracting more entrepreneurs. By 1948, there were new Top Hats in Enid and Stillwater. But the Top Hat had reached the end of its run. When Troy Smith and Charlie Pappe investigated franchising their operation, an attorney told them the Top Hat name was already in use.
The Top Hat's motto was "Service with the speed of sound," so the name "Sonic" was chosen. Shawnee attorney O.K. Witterringer drew up a double-spaced, one and one-half page franchise contract.
By the time the company celebrated its tenth anniversary, there were 19 Sonics and the enterprise had grown to include locations in Texas and New Mexico.
Four years later, when the Sonic chain had grown to forty-one stores, 54-year-old Charlie Pappe died of a sudden heart attack. Realizing he couldn't run the operation alone, Troy Smith brought in two Sonic franchisees, Marvin Jirous and Matt Kinslow, to operate Sonic's supply and distribution business. The change worked well. Jirous became the president of Sonic Supply Inc. and Kinslow took the vice president's slot.
In 1969, the second Sonic in the Lone Star State opened in Paris, a small city in northeast Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border. It was here that I had my first Sonic hamburger while visiting family in the area. It was also my first experience with cruising the Sonic.
From 1967 to 1973, 124 new Sonic Drive-ins opened in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, bringing the total to 165 stores. Smith, Jirous and Kinslow brought in seven of Sonic's key franchisees and restructured the company as Sonic Systems of American, Inc., a franchisee-owned, publicly traded company.
The next five years saw almost explosive growth for Sonic, as the company grew to eight hundred locations in thirteen southern-tier states and opened the Sonic School to provide formalized training to restaurant managers. For the first time in the firm's history, Sonic advertising appeared on television.
Even while the company was expanding, the 1970s dealt Sonic its first major setback. Oil crises and runaway inflation cut into the fast-food business as more families ate at home or sought better values at traditional restaurants. By the end of the 70s, profits were down by 21 percent. In 1980, the company recorded a $5 million decline in revenue and a loss of $300,000 for the year.
Sonic moved to streamline operations, combining the store operations and development groups and closing 28 company-owned restaurants.
The next major change came in 1984, when Cliff Hudson joined Sonic's legal department. By then, there were about a thousand Sonics, but they still operated as independent businesses, without a national advertising or purchasing program. Looking to make some much-needed changes, Hudson spearheaded a 1986 leveraged buyout of Sonic from the franchisees who were its majority shareholders. The new Sonic strategy worked. Hudson took the company public in 1991 and set up a secondary stock offering in 1995 that raised enough money to retire the company's debt. Under the new company, Sonic Corp., franchisees in seventeen states began a cooperative purchasing program and the advertising contribution increased to one percent of sales.
Cliff Hudson became Sonic's president and a CEO in 1995, a position he still holds today. At the same time, Sonic management and key franchisees, managers and franchisees were brought together to do a complete evaluation of the company and lay out a strategy for the future. Among the most noticeable changes were the adoption of a consistent menu, so customers could be sure they could enjoy their favorite foods at any Sonic, and the adoption of the company's new logo.
In 2005, Sonic is truly "America's Drive-In" with the nation's largest network of drive-in restaurants. In the most recent fiscal quarter, the company recorded revenues of $132.6 million and double-digit growth in net income. More than a million people eat at a Sonic every day and the average store does over $900,000 in business each year. With 810 locations, Texas has the most Sonics, but you can find a Sonic in 28 other states and in Mexico, where the first Sonic opened in 2001. I suggest the SuperSonic Jalapeno Cheeseburger and you've got to try a Sonic Slush.
Incidentally, today is a significant day for Sonic. On May 16, 2005, the company opens its 3,000th store. In an interesting coincidence, the franchisee for the newest Sonic, located in Shawnee, where our story began, is the same one who opened the first Sonic in Paris, Texas, thirty-six years ago. I wish him well and thank him for some fond memories of cruising the Sonic on Lamar Avenue. And I want to assure him my cousin and I really did buy food every time. Well, almost every time.
Special thanks also to Lee Ann Bratten, Sonic's Communications Director, for her help with information and pictures, Nora Klier and Danielle Laird, the choir directors at Cypress Falls High School, for putting together a great choral program and a memorable show and to all the members of the 2004-2005 Cypress Falls High School choirs for an outstanding performance.
Best wishes to all the seniors out there. Take it from one who was in high school about the same time as Tracy Turnblad: It's true. You can't stop the beat. God Bless and Good Luck!
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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