What Sonic Understands About Fast Food

On my first-ever trip to Sonic, I learned why its menu is seemingly all over the place.

From time to time, it's fun for food writers to taste an iconic fast food item for the very first time and share thoughts on what it's like to join a society of fans (or haters). I've never really eaten at Sonic Drive-In, so I thought that would make a good candidate—but I wasn't sure what Sonic's most iconic menu item was. And no one else I spoke to seemed too sure, either.

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What do you get at Sonic? I consulted Reddit, then posed the question to family and friends. People told me their favorite things to grab—besides the ice—but unlike a debate such as "Big Mac vs. Quarter Pounder," the responses were all over the place. Mozzarella sticks, onion rings, popcorn chicken, hot dogs, burgers. The only thing everyone's responses had in common was that no two were the same.

I reached out to Sonic itself. Could representatives for the company tell me about the menu's consensus favorites? Not really, but they were open to talking.

How Sonic’s menu works

Mackenzie Gibson, Vice President of Culinary and Menu Innovation at Sonic, explained that Sonic has a base menu, but also features location-specific "local favorites." Philly cheesesteaks, for example, are favorites in Philadelphia. In New Mexico, there's a burger with hatch green chiles on it.

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"Every area of the United States has their own flare," said Gibson. "We try to let franchisees and drive-ins choose products that speak to what's popular in their area."

Gibson says she eats Sonic every day. "This body was built on Sonic," she cheerfully quipped. So, what's her go-to order? When she isn't trying new Sonic products as part of her job, she said, she orders a burger or a Coney—a hot dog with chili and cheese.

"When I was growing up, my mom would always get the chili-cheese Coney, the foot-long," Gibson said. "I remember thinking, 'When I get bigger, I'm going to eat that whole thing.' And now I can eat the whole thing. That's one thing about Sonic: It's that time in the car that you spend with your family or friends. I have those memories, and now I'm passing them on to our kids. And my daughter is starting to eat the chili-cheese Coney."

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This is when I felt like I started to get a sense of what Sonic is, or what it wants to be. And as it turns out, it doesn't want to be known for a particular menu item at all.

Gibson went on to tell me about the various ways you can customize your Sonic experience: You can add things to your drink, you can customize each sandwich, you can order seemingly incongruent foods (corn dogs, jalapeno poppers, chili cheese wraps) to comprise your personal favorite meal. Sonic, she said, is about taking a break from your day and having whatever you need right then, however you think it should be.

What fast food menus offer us

A little bit about me and food. I grew up in a suburb of Albany, New York called Latham, a place partially defined by how easily you can move between its chain restaurants, stores, and malls; fast food was a big part of life. Growing up, while I was bouncing around that suburban landscape, my dad was spending a lot of time flying to other versions of it. He was a district manager and later an executive for a photo chain that was in most malls, which he traveled to weekly. When he was on those trips, I'd imagine him at a mall McDonald's, eating the same stuff I was eating at the freestanding McDonald's at home.

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Fast food, chain restaurants—they connect us in a way that's so obvious it feels silly to write about, to say out loud. But there is an undeniable fluidity to traversing America, and part of it is that the French fries have the same crunch no matter where you are.

Sonic opened its first Latham-area locations after I'd moved away, so it wasn't part of a hometown tapestry of memories and associations for me. Those Latham Sonics are still the closest available to where I live now—about an hour's drive away. So that's where I headed to explore this very popular drive-in restaurant for the first time.

The “best” food at Sonic Drive-In

Sonic sent me a $25 gift card to put toward my menu exploration, which I loaded in the Sonic app. Oddly, as I placed my order in the app, I couldn't tell how much each item cost as I selected it; I only saw prices once I navigated to the cart. In the end, I spent a little over $30 and ordered way more food than I needed, then I pulled into a stall and let the app know which one I was in. The screen in the stall lit up to let me know my order was being prepared. A little while later, a Sonic employee came to my window with a whole bunch of food.

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I'd say I tried "a little bit of everything," but the truth is, there are many things I didn't try. Sonic's menu is vast. I got the foot-long Coney, borrowing Gibson's own family tradition as my own. I also got broccoli cheddar tots, Ched'R'Peppers (jalapeño poppers), mozzarella sticks, and popcorn chicken. The app offered me a free "Wag Cup," which I thought was an ice cream cup but turned out to be a cup of whipped topping that's intended for dogs. I still tried it, and as far as cups of whipped topping go, it was fine.

Gibson had told me about the ways you could customize your drinks and even sent me her favorite recommendations. They were all novel to me. I ended up ordering Dr. Pepper with sweet cream, vanilla flavoring, cherry flavoring, and cherries. It was a revelation; I don't know how I'll ever have Dr. Pepper on its own again.

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As for the food, the hot dog and Ched'R'Peppers were my favorite. But it was all decent, none of it a showstopper of a standout. It's not about getting that "one thing." It's about ordering small comforts, whatever that might mean to you at the time.

At another stall, I saw a family of four huddled by their trunk, diving into their own feast. Sonic may not have been a part of my childhood, but that huddle was. On the weekends, my parents would a sometimes surprise my brothers and me with a thing they called "Bag 'o' Burgers." They'd go to Burger King or McDonald's and ask for a bunch of cheeseburgers, nothing else. My dad would put the bag down in the middle of the table and we'd all gather around like it was a pile of veritable gold. A cheeseburger never tasted so good as it when it came out of a Bag 'o' Burgers. I realize now, but didn't then, that the huddle made the burgers good, not the other way around.

When I left Sonic, I decided to take a drive down one of Latham's main arteries, a road peppered with internally lit signs and illuminated drive-thru menus. Driving on that particular night on that particular main drag, I saw my hometown as a place to admire. I don't know if it was the Sonic, my mood, or the way raindrops on my windshield were making the lights a little sparkly. But maybe for the first time, I was aware, in a real way, of the comfort I feel in Latham. And I was aware of the familiarity Latham has allowed me to find when I've gone to other places that look just like it.

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As if scripted, a plane flew overhead. It was flying low, about to land at the local airport. The same portal my dad came and went through as he traversed America's malls. The smell of Sonic Ched'R'Peppers still lingering in my car, I wondered who was on that plane. I wondered where they were coming from. I wondered whether there's a Sonic there, too.

 

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