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 Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

Harry & David Just Released a Cats-Inspired Gourmet Gift Collection

Harry & David
Harry & David

Year after year, Harry & David proves itself to be the undefeated champion of helping people gain the favor of tough-to-please recipients on their holiday gift lists. From baskets of cheese to buckets of popcorn, there’s a gourmet food—or collection of foods—for pretty much everyone.

This Christmas, the company has partnered with Universal Pictures to release a line of deluxe gifts that all evoke the enchanting, sophisticated style of the upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical Cats.

The products don’t come with cat ears, furry bodysuits, or pint-sized action figures of Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and the rest of the star-studded cast. Instead, in true Harry & David fashion, the gifts are decorated with tasteful Cats ribbons and subtle touches of black and gold.

The simplest option for anyone with a sweet tooth is the $30 Classic Sweets Box, which includes dark chocolate-covered pretzels, raspberry galettes, dark chocolate truffles, and Harry & David’s signature Moose Munch popcorn. For healthy eaters or fans of fruit in general, there’s a box of Royal Riviera pears, hand-wrapped in gold foil, which you can purchase with (for $70) or without (for $50) a bottle of Pinot Gris. There are also a few larger dessert baskets with a broad assortment of truffles, caramels, popcorn, chocolate-covered cherries, and more mouthwatering confectioneries.

Though you’d be ill-advised to share most of those desserts with your actual cat, they might be able to enjoy the savory meats from the other boxes and baskets—after all, cats can have a little salami. Items include sausage, salami, smoked salmon, pepper jack cheese, sharp white cheddar cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, water crackers, and roasted almonds, among other things.

In summary, the Cats collection is ideal for these demographics: people who like Cats the musical, people who like Cats the movie, people who like gift baskets, people who like gifts, and people who eat food.

You can shop all the options here, and find out everything you need to know about Cats the movie here.

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