Driving business indoors

A hot dog delivered to the car by a roller-skating carhop has been the Sonic way since the Oklahoma City-based chain opened its first store over 60 years ago. The model has worked, growing the concept to 3,500 locations—most in warm-weather states. But a couple of years ago, a New Jersey franchisee asked corporate if he could enclose his patio to create an indoor eating area. “The customers loved it, and the deployment was fairly easy,” says Mike Gallagher, Sonic’s vice president of development and franchising. When other franchisees made the same request, Sonic created a new indoor prototype. The first opened in Sun Prairie, Wis., in October,  2013.

“We’re using the same basic design as the enclosed New Jersey patio but have upgraded the materials—indoor pressed-concrete floors and wood and brick accents,” says Gallagher. Roll-up garage doors were added “to reinforce the drive-in theme,” which is central to Sonic’s brand, says Gallagher; they also permit the space to open up to the outdoors when weather permits. And Sonic’s iconic carhops still skate over to indoor guests to take orders.

There’s a 10 percent incremental cost to build the indoor units due to construction and labor. But the stores have the same footprint; the enclosed area covers the former open patio. Plans are in development to build 14 more prototypes in upstate New York. “Results have been favorable, and we’re signing new franchisees as an upshot of the indoor design,” says Gallagher. 

Concept: Sonic Drive-in
Location: Sun Prairie, Wis.
Footprint: 1,400 square feet
Seating: 40 to 50
Key features: Roll-up garage doors; pressed-concrete floor; natural wood booths; aluminum chairs; Sonic Radio piped into dining area


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