Sonic Drive-Ins has packed its summer product pipeline with options intended to set the quick-service brand apart, be it on the basis of buzz, price or health.
Already in stores is a new signature, squarely in the buzz-generating category, that builds on the chain’s reputation as a place for bizarre drink mashups: The Pickle Juice Snow Cone Slush. The beverage mixes the saltiness and tartness of pickle juice with the sweetness of a slushy or Italian ice. Customers can order it in the straightforward version, by itself or mix it with other flavors to personalize the drink.
It was recently joined by a revamp of the chain’s chicken tenders, a new riff designed to be crispy rather than crunchy, with less breading used to coat the fingers. The thinner layer of batter means less oil is retained and brings down the calorie count per se, but Sonic does not plan to trumpet that message in marketing the Crispy Tenders, said Scott Uehlein, VP of product innovation and development for the largely franchised chain. The revamped tenders are currently being promoted as a value option, with three bundled together with tater tots, an onion ring and Texas toast for $3.99.
That’s not the case with two other new products: The Classic Signature Slinger, a cheeseburger packing fewer than 350 calories because the patty is a blend of beef and minced mushrooms;and a new Breakfast Slinger, an egg-based breakfast sandwich built on a brioche bun and packing fewer than 160 calories.
The Egg & Cheese Breakfast Slinger is a limited-time option. The Signature Slinger started as an LTO but sold well enough to earn a spot on the menu, according to Uehlein.
The chain had expected the blended burger to be a stronger draw for women than it was for men, but found it to be fundamentally gender-neutral. The most noticeable sales trend, said Uehlein, was the new item’s appeal to all-meat-burger eaters who had stopped indulging because of health concerns.
Solidly at the indulgence end of the spectrum is a new snack and dessert, an Oreo-infused ice cream cone. The cone itself is a chocolate-cookie shell. It’s filled with a combination of actual Oreo filling and ice cream, with bits of the popular cookie mixed into the blend.
At least three other summertime products are slated to be announced on Aug. 1. Included in that batch, which was previewed to members of the press last week, are items priced to draw bargain-hunting consumers. They will join value-oriented products such as an over-sized chewy pretzel twist, priced at $1.99.
Uehlein stressed that the new items were easy to adopt from an operations standpoint because they required no changes in cooking processes and the addition of few new ingredients. A number of the new items, for instance, will feature the Signature Slinger's brioche-style bun, along with other breads already on the menu.
Streamlining the core menu has been a major initiative for Sonic, with its bill of fare presented billboard-style at the parking slots where customers order and eat their meals. Still, Uehlein revealed that the brand’s test kitchens have 40 menu projects underway. He would not divulge details, but noted that bread is an area of exploration.
New products figured large in Sonic’s sales-building efforts during the third quarter ended May 31. “Each helped drive stronger incrementality to our business,” CEO Cliff Hudson said, detailing the financial results to analysts. “The benefit of these promotions, combined with kind of a strategic refresh, culminated in the positive sales and traffic in the month of May.”
Those gains were offset, however, by bad weather at other times during the quarter, according to executives. Same-store sales slipped overall by 0.2%, with a 0.2% gain for company stores counterbalanced by a 0.2% decline for franchised units.
Net income rose 15%, to $21.6 million, on a 4.6% decline in revenues, to $118.3 million. The chain grew by five units during the quarter.
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