Sonic Drive-In has expanded its test of a remote ordering system that integrates with the quick-service concept’s unique carhop service format.
The app-based setup enables customers to order from the closest Sonic via their smartphones and set the time of pickup. They then pull into one of the restaurant’s parking slots, and the food is brought to them at the appointed time.
In many respects, said executives, Sonic’s retro drive-in format makes advance ordering easier than it might be for a concept offering traditional counter service. Orders are already routed in sequence to the kitchen, and runners, sometimes on roller skates, lug the items to the car on a tray that clips to the vehicle’s side window. It’s essentially curbside delivery, with far more parking spaces available.
The tests were expanded to all 27 or so units in a single market about three weeks ago, after being tried in a few isolated stores, CEO Cliff Hudson told financial analysts Tuesday evening. Headquarters anticipates expanding to two or three additional trade areas during April to see how the service flies with various types of customers, he revealed.
Hudson stressed that this wasn't the introduction of a new app. "The app is already out there," he said. "It's the integration in the market at the store level and the order-ahead piece."
He suggested that having the app already in the marketplace could provide some quick traction for the new service. His prediction was that the new sales channel would be rolled out by the fourth quarter if all goes according to plan.
The ability to field preorders should translate into greater convenience for customers, said Hudson. He noted that the system, which is built on Sonic’s new app, will also lay the groundwork for an entry into delivery if the concept decides to add that option, but he stressed that no move is imminent.
Hudson declined to provide sales figures from the test, noting that it’s less than a month old. But, he commented, “The technology is working as expected. Customer complaints have been minimal. The service time to customers are averaging just less than two minutes, from the guests' arrival at the restaurant till they receive their food, and more often than not we can actually deliver to customers in less than 90 seconds.”
The digital initiative is one of several new undertakings to bolster sales. Sonic is in the process of simplifying its menu by narrowing the listed variations of certain products, primarily ice cream dishes and beverages, said President Claudia San Pedro.
The streamlining should simplify kitchen operations, raise the caliber of execution and boost throughput, she explained. Sonic also expects the 20% reduction in menu items to provide customers with a cleaner, easy-to-navigate array of choices, and hopefully lead them to higher-ticket items, executives added.
The 60-year-old concept is also stepping up its efforts to draw female customers with a new under-350-calorie burger, the Signature Slinger, that’s made with a combination of beef and minced mushrooms.
In addition, it recently launched a new ad campaign that builds off its longtime Two Guys commercials, where two knuckleheads speak lovingly of Sonic’s food. The new spots sport two women, comediennes and TV stars Jane Krakowski and Ellie Kemper.
Sonic’s same-store sales slipped 2.9% for the second quarter ended Feb. 28 because of a decline in traffic, the company said. Executives blamed the decline largely on bad weather in the central and eastern part of the United States, where most of the chain is located. The concept is particularly vulnerable to inclement weather because customers order and eat outside the restaurant, in their cars, the officials stressed.
Revenues for the quarter declined about 12%, to $88.1 million, a reflection of the company's ongoing refranchising effort. Only about 222 of the 3,587 restaurants in operation at the end of the quarter were company-run.
Net income rose about 79%, to $19.6 million.