Sonic gave customers much needed experience during the pandemic
In March 2000, Sonic took some risk. Under Claudia San Pedro, who was named president of the burger chain in 2018, the company decided to move away from its popular “Two Guys” commercial and focus on the times customers can have in their cars while while eating Sonic.
But the timing would turn out to be fortuitous. Shortly after the start of the new commercial series, which featured real customers enjoying real-life moments while eating Sonic in their cars, the world was hit by a pandemic that would change the way consumers used them. restaurants.
For much of 2020, in other words, the car would be the place where people could have a good time. As COVID-19 spread and dining rooms were closed or restricted, rallies took place behind the wheel. These advertisements reminded customers of this benefit.
The result for Sonic was one of the best years in the company’s history, with system sales in the United States soaring 21% to $ 5.7 billion. It overtook both Panera Bread and Pizza Hut to become the 11th largest restaurant chain in the United States, according to the Technomic Top 500 report on the restaurant chain. Even in a year when burger chains performed well, thanks to strong take-out and drive-thrus strategies, Sonic’s performance stood out.
“We could never have seen this kind of year,” Sonic president Claudia San Pedro said in an interview. “When we are all disconnected and we spend our lives not being with the people you love, you can ask someone to bring you food and have that kindness.”
Indeed, she said, the company’s auto shops have provided a level of service that customers did not receive last year. “We’ve gotten so much feedback from the garages about their kindness,” San Pedro said. “It wasn’t just a transaction, but people connecting and enjoying the connection.”
10 biggest burger chains
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant report
Consumers ate significantly more hamburgers in the past year. The 10 largest limited-service hamburger chains averaged 2.7% sales growth despite last year’s pandemic, and Top 100 hamburger chains averaged 1.2%. While those numbers don’t seem like much, they were in 2020.
Along with companies like Sonic that generated strong growth, there were concepts like Culver, whose system sales increased 10.6%, Freddy Frozen Custard, whose sales increased by 20%, and the valiant In- N-Out Burger, whose sales climbed 9.5%.
However, among the most notable moves in this segment, Wendy’s, the third-largest burger chain in the United States, overtook Burger King to take second place behind monster McDonald’s.
Cars have definitely been a place of convenience for consumers – market research firm Researchscape, last year, for example, found that 30% of Americans were driving around their neighborhood for a mini-break during the day while that 16% were sitting in their car listening to audiobooks or music. Consumers were also clearly eating in their cars, lining up at drive-ins and filling out Sonic’s drive-ins.
US Sonic Systems Sales
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant report
The 3,500-unit chain focused on implementing technology that would give customers options while not eliminating the service provided by these workshops.
Advance ordering has worked well for the chain, allowing customers to choose their orders and customize them, and then choose how they want to get the food, either at one of the chain’s stalls or through the service. driving.
Customers, San Pedro said, have rediscovered the chain using its new convenience. “The convenience of being able to order in the field, choose where I can get my food, personalize my food – we have a varied theme – and when I step into the field I don’t have to stand in line,” she says. . “I go up to any stall, insert the number and receive the food I have ordered in the most frequent and contactless way.”
“We give people choices,” she added. “Customers are always in control of their choices, how they want to order, what they want from their food, what they want from their drinks. If you are alone in the stall, you can be alone and eat in your car. It is socially acceptable and almost celebrated. “
But drive-ins, she said, made the celebrations easier while still allowing for the contactless service – which helped fuel the chain’s sales last year.
However, Sonic is not just a pandemic phenomenon. System sales increase 5% in 2019, according to Technomic. This was more than double the average growth rate of the previous 12 years. The company has been working on this technology for some time. He has also used the innovation effectively, with the Twisted Texan Cheeseburger, a Strawberry Cheesecake Blast and others.
It has worked to improve the employee experience and is now working to give customers the option to tip their car shops – one of the biggest customer demands during the pandemic, San Pedro said.
The challenge for Sonic going forward is to keep that momentum going. Many chains have increased their sales in recent months and casual dining concepts are on an incredible trajectory. He no longer has a monopoly on social gatherings for families.
Yet San Pedro has an answer. This summer will be all about partying outdoors, and Sonic is offering customers the option to do just that. “We’re definitely going to be doing things this summer that we didn’t feel comfortable doing last summer,” she said. “It’s another wonderful way for people to connect and have this dining experience.”
The chain will also build on its pre-ordering capabilities while working to create new information about the flavors of its more snackable options. The company also sees delivery as a possible sales channel – one it did not take advantage of during the pandemic, mainly because it was not obligated to do so. “We think we can continue to develop this,” she said. “Delivery as a percentage of sales will increase.”
San Pedro also believes the pandemic has given the company an edge by educating customers outside of the chain’s more southern central markets on how to use the concept. This is particularly important in the northern markets where the chain has not been as successful. “We are still educating new customers about the value and relevance of this drive-in format,” she said. “The pandemic has helped accelerate this understanding. “I understand now.
“Sitting in the car with your family is actually quite profitable. They understand the value of the drive-in format as an experience. “