I went to Sonic drive-in and saw why the chain saw huge growth during the pandemic

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I went to Sonic drive-in and saw why the chain saw huge growth during the pandemic
  • Sonic increased sales by over $1 billion during the pandemic.
  • Experts credit the chain's drive-in model and broad menu for its success.
  • I went there to try out the food and drive-in experience.
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Sonic's drive-in model thrived during the pandemic as competitors closed dining rooms.

Sonic's drive-in model thrived during the pandemic as competitors closed dining rooms.
Sonic drive-in sign. Photo By Tim Leedy/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

I visited a Henrietta, New York location to try out the drive-in service that was so successful.

I visited a Henrietta, New York location to try out the drive-in service that was so successful.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Sonic operates a drive-thru, dining room, and drive-in. The drive-in has 15 to 20 parking spots with their own speakers to order food, which is brought outside by the car hop.

Sonic operates a drive-thru, dining room, and drive-in. The drive-in has 15 to 20 parking spots with their own speakers to order food, which is brought outside by the car hop.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The drive-in area is under a covering that keeps it comfortable in hot temperatures or rainy weather.

The drive-in area is under a covering that keeps it comfortable in hot temperatures or rainy weather.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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The drive-in section is just across the parking lot from the entrance.

The drive-in section is just across the parking lot from the entrance.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

There's also a small outdoor seating area.

There's also a small outdoor seating area.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Normally customers would also have the option of ordering and eating inside, but the dining room was still closed.

Normally customers would also have the option of ordering and eating inside, but the dining room was still closed.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Each drive-in spot is essentially a drive-thru in miniature, with a sign displaying Sonic's massive menu. Customers press the red button to signal that they are ready to order, and a worker will take their order through the speaker.

Each drive-in spot is essentially a drive-thru in miniature, with a sign displaying Sonic's massive menu. Customers press the red button to signal that they are ready to order, and a worker will take their order through the speaker.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Most of the sign is a static display, but there is also a digital screen that shares information. In this case, it said that some ingredients were not available because of supply issues across the entire industry.

Most of the sign is a static display, but there is also a digital screen that shares information. In this case, it said that some ingredients were not available because of supply issues across the entire industry.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I ordered through Sonic's app before I arrived, which gave me time to look through the extensive menu that experts say is key to the chain's success.

I ordered through Sonic's app before I arrived, which gave me time to look through the extensive menu that experts say is key to the chain's success.
Sonic grew during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider

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The menu has typical fast food fare - burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries.

The menu has typical fast food fare - burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries.
Sonic grew during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Unlike many competitors, it also has a wide selection of snacks including different types of tater tots, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and soft pretzels. Analysts said that the comfort food not tied to a specific meal time may have also contributed to Sonic's success.

Unlike many competitors, it also has a wide selection of snacks including different types of tater tots, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and soft pretzels. Analysts said that the comfort food not tied to a specific meal time may have also contributed to Sonic's success.
Sonic grew during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider

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Sonic's drinks are a major part of its appeal to customers. Sonic's president told Insider that 25% of all orders are drink-only, and there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations on the menu.

Sonic's drinks are a major part of its appeal to customers. Sonic's president told Insider that 25% of all orders are drink-only, and there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations on the menu.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider

There are so many options to add to a drink that it's almost overwhelming. I finally went with a diet coke with cranberry flavor and lime.

There are so many options to add to a drink that it's almost overwhelming. I finally went with a diet coke with cranberry flavor and lime.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Once you finish ordering on the app, check out and pay.

Once you finish ordering on the app, check out and pay.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The app lets you know that the order has been accepted.

The app lets you know that the order has been accepted.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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When you arrive, the app prompts you to say where you are parked. Each spot in the drive-in has a corresponding number.

When you arrive, the app prompts you to say where you are parked. Each spot in the drive-in has a corresponding number.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The app gives updates about order status while you wait.

The app gives updates about order status while you wait.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Once you're checked in on the app, you can also see your order status on the screen. The screen informed me when a carhop was heading out with my order.

Once you're checked in on the app, you can also see your order status on the screen. The screen informed me when a carhop was heading out with my order.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Carhops bring out food and drinks to customers waiting in parking spots.

Carhops bring out food and drinks to customers waiting in parking spots.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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A server brought out my food and drinks within a few minutes, boxed up conveniently for transport.

A server brought out my food and drinks within a few minutes, boxed up conveniently for transport.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The drinks, a milkshake and a flavored coke, were probably the highlight of our trip - and definitely worth a visit on their own.

The drinks, a milkshake and a flavored coke, were probably the highlight of our trip - and definitely worth a visit on their own.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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Some people eat in their cars, but I chose to drive home because the snacks I ordered were fairly messy.

Some people eat in their cars, but I chose to drive home because the snacks I ordered were fairly messy.
Sonic restaurants have over 20 drive-in spots. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

While it's not the prettiest food in pictures, Sonic delicious comfort food options that are perfect for sharing.

While it's not the prettiest food in pictures, Sonic delicious comfort food options that are perfect for sharing.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
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After my visit, I'm not surprised that Sonic grew so much during the pandemic. It sells snacks and drinks that make a perfect treat any time of the day, and the drive-in has very minimal contact with other people for safety.

After my visit, I'm not surprised that Sonic grew so much during the pandemic. It sells snacks and drinks that make a perfect treat any time of the day, and the drive-in has very minimal contact with other people for safety.
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider