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Sonic’s new prototype, which opened last year, includes a covered area for outdoor seating, a drive-thru and a new color scheme, as well a more efficient kitchen design, the company said.

Sonic eyes international expansion

Drive-in QSR also plans more store format innovation, digital enhancements

Sonic Drive-In is planning its first international expansion, the chain’s president said during a presentation during the National Retail Federation’s virtual trade show this week.

“Sonic is one of the few, large brands that is only domestic,” said Claudia San Pedro, who has been president of the Oklahoma City-based chain since 2018.

She said Sonic will leverage the international expertise of its parent company, Inspire Brands, to grow the Sonic restaurant concept outside the U.S. “over the next couple of years.” Inspire also owns Arby’s, Dunkin’, Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John’s and other restaurant brands.

San Pedro did not provide further details about the plans to expand internationally, and a spokesperson for Inspire was not immediately available for comment.

Inspire Brands’ ownership will also facilitate more testing of store formats, she said. Sonic launched a new prototype in July 2020, which she described as a “highly successful format.” The new store design, which debuted in Tahlequah, Okla., last summer, includes 18 car docks, a drive-thru and a covered outdoor patio, along with a new bright color scheme.

Going forward, San Pedro said Sonic will seek to incorporate more flexibility into its format designs to adapt to different site sizes and layouts, as well as to varying consumer needs in each market, especially as more sites have become available in the wake of the pandemic and as consumers increasingly embrace drive-thru, takeout and delivery.

“One of the great advantages of being a part of Inspire Brands is that we have been able do a lot more testing — and we will be doing a lot more testing — of format innovation,” she said during the trade show. “We are going to be doing that in a few key areas: One of those is how can we retrofit the appropriate size building with the stalls and drive-thru for different real estate site sizes, and [another is] how can we improve the drive-thru experience to make sure we are meeting those guest expectations?”

The potential for nontraditional store development is also on the company’s radar, she said.

Closely aligned with the testing of new formats is Sonic’s investment in its mobile app, known as the Mobile Order Ahead system. The chain saw sales through the mobile platform “increase significantly” in 2020, San Pedro said.

“This past year, we were able to accelerate the deals and offers that we made through the order ahead app,” she said, adding that such activity will continue in 2021.

Sonic also has expanded order ahead to make the service available online as well as from the app, so that customers can order from anywhere. The chain is also planning to add the ability for customers to tip workers through the payment function on the app — something San Pedro said customers have strongly requested.

“That is one of the top three things we heard from our guests,” she said. “They want to be able to tip our carhops for good service.”

Looking ahead, San Pedro said she expects that the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will have a strong positive impact on the restaurant industry and on the economy overall, freeing up customers to return to dining out more often and bringing more people back into the labor market.

The industry will continue to feel upward pressure on wages, however, San Pedro said, which may drive price increases. Sonic will also continue to seek to offset wage pressures through efficiencies, such as the kitchen reconfigurations made in the new prototype stores. Sonic is also seeking to simplify its menu processes, which San Pedro described as “incredibly complex to operate” because of the chain’s extensive menu variety.

She said pent-up consumer demand for dining out will yield benefits across the industry as the vaccine is rolled out and consumers again feel comfortable going to restaurants with friends and family.

“The hope is that once we get the vaccine rolled out, it will lift that extra layer of stress we have all lived with, and we will get back to celebrating the things that are important to us that we have not been able to celebrate,” San Pedro said.

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