4 secrets behind Sonic’s menu success

Mackenzie Gibson, Sonic’s VP of culinary and menu innovation, shares an inside look at her team's R&D mindset.   
Broccoli cheddar tots
Broccoli Cheddar Tots are a craveable item that meshes with Sonic's culinary DNA. / Photo courtesy of Sonic Drive-In

Sonic’s Mackenzie Gibson is inspired by seeing consumers eat her food.

That’s been her motivation since her first job in product development at Jack in the Box to her current position as VP of culinary and menu innovation at Oklahoma City-based Sonic Drive-In.

In a recent episode of the Menu Feed podcast, Gibson discussed how and why Sonic’s fans fuel her creativity and drive her team to develop successful menu items. Here's some of what she shared.

Let your customers lead you.

Gibson always wanted to work at a brand where she was a customer. As a kid, she and her brother visited Sonic Drive-In often with their mom. “After I learned about developing products for foodservice, I discovered that understanding your customer is a big part of your success … in the way you build product development skills, create menu items and lead your team,” she said.

 Mackenzie Gibson
Mackenzie Gibson

Sonic is a consumer-driven brand, and Gibson and her team talk to their customers as often as possible. Even with her marketing background, “I don’t rely on what’s on a marketing calendar to lead R&D,” she said. “We let consumers lead new product development.”

Think about the business of food, not just the culinary side.

Gibson loves food, but she believes in integrating culinary and marketing as one unit when approaching R&D. “Understanding the business holistically is so important,” she said. Culinary has input into Sonic’s retail business as well, with the launch and expansion of Sonic-branded hard seltzers, ice pops and other products that capture the chain’s beverage and shake flavors.  

Use LTOs to build flavor fans.

Sonic wants to become a burger QSR and, toward that end, launches a lot of burgers as LTOs. Running right now is the Steak Butter Bacon Cheeseburger, a savory build of a grilled beef patty topped with bacon, American cheese, mayo, Montreal steak-seasoned butter and grilled onions on a toasted bakery bun. "We gain flavor attraction with consumers through burger LTOs, but they don’t come on to the core menu because we want to keep building that attraction,” said Gibson. “We do cheeseburgers really well and do flavor extensions really well.”

Find the craveability in a product and turn it into something that works with the brand’s culture.

Every Sonic menu item and LTO has an all-American twist; that’s integral to the brand’s DNA. Indulgence is also a priority. Recent introductions of Fried Cookie Dough Bites and Broccoli Cheddar Tots reflect those priorities and expand the lineup of craveable, bite-size snacks. But one of the most craveable ingredients for the chain is not even a menu item—it’s Sonic’s iconic chewable ice that goes into its signature cold beverages.

Gibson is a big fan. “A cup of ice with lime and salt is one of my favorite ‘secret menu’ items,” she said. “We can never take that ice off the menu."  

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.

Exclusive Content


Why the Burgerim settlement exposes flaws in franchise oversight

The Bottom Line: The federal government allowed the chain’s founder to avoid major penalties by simply paying $1,000. What’s the point of regulation in the first place?


Why the Smashed Jack sparked record-smashing demand at Jack in the Box

Behind the Menu: The chain’s newest menu addition aims to break the mold on what a fast-food burger can be, and customers are buying in.


Why Wingstop isn't afraid of Popeyes' chicken wings

The Bottom Line: The fast-casual wing chain says its sales improve when another brand pushes the product. Here’s why that might be.