Sonic celebrating half-century of drive-in dining

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
by Cynthia Martens

The Free Press

The first Sonic prototype opened its doors in Oklahoma in 1953, thanks to founder Troy Smith.

It was originally called the Top Hat, but the name was later changed to Sonic-delivering quality food at the speed of sound to reflect the dawn of the atomic era and the new space age.

Today, it’s one of the few remaining drive-in restaurant chains in the country, and it’s celebrating 50 years in business.

“Everybody’s a winner-that’s what we’re promoting-everybody wins with our birthday celebration,” said Rikki Meyer, manager of the local Sonic located at the north end of town and adjacent to U.S. Highway 56.

The official celebration was held in May amid huge birthday-box decorations, colorful balloons and a giant birthday card.

Patrons that day played a game called secret stalls. Every hour throughout the day, a different parking space was designated the “secret stall,”and patrons pulling into it received 50 percent off their meal.

Certain items on the menu were reduced that day as well. Junior burgers, corn dogs and ice-cream cones were only 50 cents each.

All parties must eventually come to an end, but this one plans to linger all year long.

Sometime soon, when the Kansas wind cooperates, Meyer plans to decorate the patio like an over-size birthday present-40-feet long by 10-feet wide.

“And there’s a lot more,” she said.

The local Sonic is offering a birthday promotion this month called the peel-a-present game, with stickers placed on 32-and 44-ounce drinks.

“And everybody’s a winner-whether it’s discounted food, free food, all the way up to a 2003 cherry-red Mustang convertible,” Meyer said.

Meyer’s excitement couldn’t be contained in any-size birthday box as she talked about more free items for her customers-free fuel for a year, MP3 players and a muscle car.

“It’s modeled after a 1965 car, and it’s a battery powered go-cart, like a power wheels,” Meyer said.

And one month during the year, she’ll have an on-lot drawing for the lucky winner of the go-cart.

Hired as manager in the early part of 2002, Meyer could easily be called the Sonic cheerleader.

“We are America’s favorite drive-in,” she said.

“I think we’ve endured for so long because we make food fresh to order, and we try to get it out as fast as we can.”

A peek inside the restaurant building reveals the staff working without any microwaves, heating lamps or warming drawers.

“I think Sonic as a whole, we typically can get a delicious-tasting freshly made hot meal out to a customer in five minutes,” Meyer said.

Moving forward in a competitive fast-food industry, the local franchise offered area customers a breakfast menu starting in February.

But taking it one step further, those items are available all day long. Patrons can order breakfast toaster sandwiches, such as ham-egg-and-cheese, bacon-egg-and-cheese, and sausage-egg-and- cheese on toast. Or they can enjoy breakfast burritos, pancakes on a stick and french-toast sticks.

In fact, customers can order any menu item, any time of day.

“They can come in and get an extra-long chili-cheese coney at 9 a.m., and we sell a lot of breakfast burritos late at night,” Meyer said.

For those people who are in a rut eating the same thing every morning, Meyer said she wants to challenge them to “break away from the ordinary and try the extraordinary”at Sonic.

A restaurant specialty is onion rings made the old-fashioned way.

“We hand make our onion rings-double dip them every morning,” Meyer said. “You have to be careful to make sure you get the batter right-enough breading and not too much.”

The most popular menu item is the popcorn chicken, an item first tested as a monthly special that proved to be a hit with customers.

“When Sonic first came out with popcorn chicken, it was so phenomenally successful that even the warehouse had a hard time keeping up with the demand for it,” Meyer said.

“It’s all white meat with no preservatives.”

Asked for her personal favorite recipes, she offered the following she discovered on the Internet at Atkinscenter.com:

Burgundy Chicken

2 Tbs. olive oil, divided

1 small onion, chopped

1/2 small carrot, chopped

1 celery stock, chopped

2 cloves garlic, sliced

2 ounces baked ham, diced

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1/2 C. red wine

1/2 C. reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/2 bay leaf

2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley

Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery. Cook five minutes, until vegetables soften. Add garlic and ham, and cook two minutes more. Transfer mixture to a bowl.

Heat remaining oil, and brown chicken thighs. Add wine, broth and bay leaf to skillet. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook 35 minutes, until chicken is cooked through, and most of the liquid is reduced. Return vegetables and ham to skillet. Mix well, heat through five minutes. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Meyer said she doesn’t have a problem cooking with wine, because the alcohol burns off during the cooking and leaves the meat tender. And the chicken recipe “has the right blend of ingredients to it-between the onion, celery and ham,” she said.

Because her husband enjoys rib-eye steaks, Meyer tried the following from the same Web site, and it became a favorite recipe:

Rib-Eye Steak With Red Wine Sauce

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 pound boneless rib-eye steak

1/2 Tsp. salt

2 Tbs. butter, divided

2 large cloves garlic, pushed through a press

1 small shallot, finely chopped

1/2 C. dry red wine

1/4 C. reduced-sodium beef broth

1/4 Tsp. pepper

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Lower heat to medium. Sprinkle steak with salt. Cook steak six minutes per side for medium doneness. Remove steak from skillet, and keep warm.

Melt butter in skillet. Add shallot. Cook three minutes, stirring. Add garlic, and cook one minute more. Stir in wine, broth and pepper. Bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of skillet. Lower the heat, and simmer for three minutes until sauce thickens slightly. Cut remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in four pieces. Add piece by piece to sauce, stirring until incorporated.

Slice steak into thin strips. Top with sauce.

“This cuts apart nice and easy,” Meyer said.

“A rib-eye, you can only grill it so many different ways. And after a while, I like it cooked a little different. So this is a nice touch.”

“Nice” appears to be an operative word as Meyer manages the Sonic.

“I love the people I work with,” Meyer said. “I have a crew that is so dedicated to me and my store.

“And most important, I love my guests. I love making people smile. When you can go above and beyond their expectations, then that’s what really makes it worthwhile.”

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