14 Things You Didn't Know About Sonic Drive-In

Back in the day, drive-in restaurants were a dime a dozen. But they’ve mostly gone the way of the drive-in movie theater, with one notable exception: Sonic Drive-In. As the biggest chain of drive-in restaurants still in existence, Sonic serves 3 million customers across 45 states every day. Even if you're a loyal consumer of cherry limeades, here are a few facts you probably didn't know about "America's favorite drive-in."

1. SONIC WAS ORIGINALLY JUST A ROOT BEER STAND.

Restaurant founder Troy Smith tried his hand at running a number of restaurants, from diners and steakhouses to a root beer stand in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He outfitted the root beer stand with a car-to-kitchen intercom system after discovering a similar setup at a restaurant along the Texas-Louisiana border. It didn’t take him long to realize that the stand was consistently outperforming all of his other restaurants, turning a 20 percent profit on a regular basis. (There’s always money in the root beer stand.) So, in 1953, Smith ditched the other places and focused all of his attention on the root beer business.

2. SONIC COULD HAVE BEEN CALLED "TOP HAT" INSTEAD.

"Top Hat" was the name of the root beer stand, which Smith wanted to keep when he decided to expand. Unfortunately, his lawyers discovered that the phrase had already been trademarked and advised him to come up with something else.

3. THE NAME "SONIC" REFERS TO ITS SPEEDINESS.

Lars Plougmann, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The alternative name Smith and business partner Charles Pappe came up with was directly related to the Top Hat tagline they developed to promote the quick ordering process made possible by the intercom system. That slogan? “Service with the Speed of Sound.” The first drive-in officially dubbed Sonic opened in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1959.

4. THE FIRST FRANCHISE AGREEMENT INCLUDED AN UNUSUAL STIPULATION.

Instead of charging a flat fee, Sonic’s first formal franchise agreement gave Smith and Pappe a penny for every logo-stamped paper hamburger bag that was used.

5. SONIC AND DR PEPPER TEAM UP TO HOST AN ANNUAL CARHOP COMPETITION.

The winner receives $1000 and an all-expense-paid trip to the annual Sonic National Convention. They’re accepting submissions now, so if you’re a Sonic carhop, get on it. Here’s what you’ll be up against:

6. CHERRY LIMEADES ARE ONE OF SONIC'S BEST-SELLING PRODUCTS.

A photo posted by Sonic Drive-In (@sonicdrivein) on

In one year, Sonic sells enough of the delicious drinks to fill more than 15 Olympic sized swimming pools.

7. FRANKIE AVALON WAS ONCE THE COMPANY SPOKESMAN.

Playing to their nostalgic image, Sonic recruited former teen idol Frankie Avalon as their spokesperson in the late ‘80s and early '90s.

These days, the company has turned to Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant for celebrity endorsement—specifically, to push their new line of slushes studded with candy pieces.

8. THE COMPANY SAYS IT OFFERS 168,894 DRINK COMBINATIONS.

A photo posted by Sonic Drive-In (@sonicdrivein) on

If Durant gets tired of adding Jolly Ranchers and Nerds to his drinks, he has plenty of other options available. In fact, even though Sonic advertises 168,894 combos, the Wall Street Journal found even more—688,133.

9. SOME OF THE BEST FLAVOR COMBOS ARE EMPLOYEE-SUBMITTED.

In 2011, Sonic corporate asked employees to concoct and submit drink combinations and names that weren’t officially on the menu. They received more than 600 entries, from Blue Hawaiian (Sprite with blue coconut flavoring and real pineapple) to Strawberry Shortcake (Sprite with vanilla flavoring, sweet cream, and real strawberries).

10. THE SONIC HEADQUARTERS IN OKLAHOMA CITY FEATURES A TEST KITCHEN.

The 10-person test kitchen works to invent new menu items and perfect old ones. The test kitchen staff also runs the employee cafeteria. "We want the employees to try the food and be ambassadors for the food," Chef Claes Petersson has said.

11. YOU CAN GET BEER AT SONIC BEACH.

A photo posted by 🅱ianke (@teambianke) on

If you live in Florida, you may have come across Sonic Beach. Intended to "capture the South Florida essence," Sonic Beach has a patio area, 60” LED flat screen TVs, a sand beach area—and alcohol. They're the only Sonic locations that offer beer, wine, and even Dom Perignon.

12. SOME SONIC LOCATIONS OFFER ADULT PLAYGROUNDS.

If you’re not near a Sonic Beach, don’t worry—there’s probably still some fun to be had at your local restaurant. In hopes of providing the adult equivalent of a ball pit, many Sonics offer batting cages, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and more.

13. THE TWO DEADPAN MEN IN THE SONIC COMMERCIALS ARE ACTUALLY IMPROV ACTORS AND WRITERS.

Peter Grosz wrote for The Colbert Report for three years and currently writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers, while T.J. Jagodowski is a Second City alum who has had roles in the movies Stranger Than Fiction, Oz the Great and Powerful, and Get Hard.

14. NO SONIC IN YOUR AREA YET? THERE PROBABLY WILL BE.

Bob B. Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2014, the company announced plans to add 1000 restaurants in the next 10 years, including an additional 300 in California alone.

This piece was corrected to reflect that Sonic's Oklahoma City headquarters has a test kitchen and employee cafeteria, not a drive-in restaurant.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

iStock.com/andresr
iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER