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SONIC Drive-In Restaurants Booming During Pandemic Study Finds Folks in Missouri and Kansas Flocking to Sonic

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Above image credit: A new study by TOPdata suggests that SONIC's carhop service model is benefiting from shift dining patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Emily Woodring | Flatland)
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2 minute read

Local movie drive-ins are selling out on the weekends, and some people are even staging drive-in concerts. Recreational vehicle sales are soaring. Indeed, many forms of car culture seem to be on the upswing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now consider fast-food restaurants.

A new study by TOPdata suggests that SONIC, America’s only remaining national drive-in chain restaurant, is a fast food stop of choice during the age of coronavirus – particularly in Missouri and Kansas.

Fast Food Hot Spots Across the Country

Source: TOPdata

Sean Lansing, the director of client strategy at TOP Data, a market research company, said the study was based on smartphone location tracking data compiled by cuebiq. The data was collected from mid-March to mid-June and shows SONIC not only as a Midwest favorite fast food stop but also as a national favorite during this pandemic. 

(Yes, it’s 2020 and you are part of the surveillance economy. Unless you take proactive steps to turn off location tracking, many of your movements can be aggregated and analyzed by marketers.)

Lansing said SONIC is benefiting during the pandemic because of its “unique business model and carhop service.”

Does the term “drive-in” sound safer or maybe just a little more fun than the term “drive-thru” at the moment? Are people seeking comfort in nostalgia now? 

Christi Woodworth, vice president of public relations with SONIC, said “it’s more about personalization and allowing the guests to design their own experience, than nostalgia.” Woodworth added that the growth is coming as a result of SONIC’s preexisting format that enables social distancing, and its contactless payment options in the SONIC app. 

SONIC isn’t the only drive-in restaurant operating in the Kansas City area. A carhop at Mugs Up Drive In in Independence said she saw a bump in business early in the pandemic before leveling off recently. Mugs Up’s carry-out only business model has been in place since 1956.

Since COVID-19 started to ramp up in the Midwest, analysts said fast food sales have gone through a sorting process. Some chains, for example, are scrambling to make up for lost breakfast business because fewer people are commuting to work.

“We are starting to see customers sort themselves into one of two camps. One, ‘I am making an effort to be less reliant on takeout and quick-service restaurants.’ Or two, ‘I tend to continue to order the majority of my food from quick-service restaurants’,” according to a study done by Bottle Rocket. 

Everyone seems to have a fast-food go-to. Some customers are sticking with familiar restaurants rather than being adventurous during the pandemic. One can speculate many reasons for fast food’s current popularity: not feeling safe dining out, affordability, or maybe using the pandemic as an excuse to eat less healthy foods and to “treat yourself.”

Whatever the reasons, the recent TOPdata study suggests that drive-ins still seem to hold a special place in people’s hearts, and may be just an excuse to get out of the house and have a little fun.

“For 67 years, SONIC has turned cars into private dining rooms and the model may be even more relevant today,” Woodworth said.

Fun Fact: Barkley, a marketing agency here in Kansas City, had SONIC as a client for 17 years until 2010. Currently Signal Theory, another Kansas City marketing and design firm, designs “SONIC’s Menus, POPS (digital messaging), packaging, and supports their franchise system with local marketing program development and implementation.”

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