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Leadership

Sonic's Claudia San Pedro keeps her ears and options wide open

At the Restaurant Leadership Conference, the former government official shared the philosophy that earned her the 2022 Restaurant Leader of the Year award.
Editor-in-chief Jonathan Maze, Claudia San Pedro | Photograph by W. Scott Mitchell

The status quo hasn’t always looked right to Claudia San Pedro, this year’s Restaurant Leader of the Year. Why, for instance, were two men starring in the TV commercials for Sonic, the chain she heads as president? Sure, the characters’ in-car antics turned the ad spots into near-cult favorites—a marketer’s dream. But 60% of the brand’s customers are female.

Sonic’s current commercials feature a carload of women. They also portray the drive-in chain as a brand befitting today’s time-pressed families, not some quaint slice of nostalgia right out of an Annette Funicello movie.

The tweaks have breathed new life into a brand that can indeed trace its roots to the 1950s. San Pedro’s adept leadership of that rejuvenation earned her the selection by the editors of Restaurant Business as this year’s top chain executive. To hear San Pedro tell it, all it took was a combination of listening, looking and readjusting accordingly.

“Being a leader, it’s all about adapt, adapt, adapt. Flexible, flexible, flexible,” San Pedro said during an on-stage interview during the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. “How do you take something that’s horrible and turn it into an opportunity?”

A case in point: The pandemic’s effect on Sonic’s new product pipeline. The chain is known for its constant stream of new menu items and limited-time options. When the COVID crisis hit, that flow was disrupted for nearly two years.

“We now have an 18-month pantry of products that we were unable to execute,” San Pedro revealed during her interview with Restaurant Business Editor in Chief Jonathan Maze.

The key, she suggested, is seeing things as they are, not as intuition might suggest. For instance, Sonic is currently expanding into the East and Northeast, markets that can be less than ideal weatherwise for a drive-in concept. Orders are walked outdoors from an enclosed kitchen to the driver’s window of a parked car—not the ideal model in frigid or snowy climates.

To keep growing, Sonic had to find a way to negate that complication.

“Most people think it’s by having indoor dining,” said San Pedro. “We tested that over and over again, and we learned that was not what people wanted.”

Instead, “we learned it was having fewer stalls [and] double drive-thrus,” she continued. “People still wanted to eat in their cars.”

That learn-and-adjust process also figured into the chain’s adoption of technology.

“We started our technology transformation back in 2013,” said San Pedro. “Like a lot of operators, we had a lot of mistakes along the way. We actually went through several off-the-shelf apps before we realized we should create our own.”

Today, the chain uses technology to facilitate its long-term traditions. Customers can still wheel their car into any slot in the drive-in area. But they can now order ahead via the proprietary app and let the staff know where they’ve parked.

“It’s a constant discussion of how we can make the experience better, to get the best of both worlds,” said San Pedro. “You can think about this as a quaint, nostalgic brand. The truth is, it’s incredibly important and relevant to our current lives. A mother can pick up a meal on the way home after picking up the kids from school.”

As San Pedro took the stage at the leadership conference, co-workers, family members and Sonic franchisees paid tribute to her via a video. Several of the included acquaintances attributed an uncanny power of observation to the Mexican-born former government official.

“Her listening skills are almost as good as her speaking her skills,” one franchisee commented. “She listens to her team, she listens to her franchisees.”

It was suggested that her perception skills were sharpened by being a first-generation immigrant who couldn’t understand or speak English until age 6. By that time, she was already in school, “a stranger In a strange land,” as San Pedro put it.

One day, a teacher named Mrs. Green pulled her out of line and spoke to her. San Pedro had no idea what the adult was saying, but the next thing she knew her mother was coming to meet Mrs. Green at the teacher’s request.

Mrs. Green offered to tutor the girl in English—not for pay, but out of kindness.

“She became my adopted grandmother. It was the first great example of how strangers came come together and create this community of support,” said San Pedro. “When I think of the restaurant industry, I see examples of that every single day. You have people helping each other through extraordinary circumstances.

“Those examples show the best of humanity.”

The Restaurant Leadership Conference is presented by Winsight Media, the parent company of Restaurant Businss.

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