SONIC Franchise Review: An Interview with Nashville Area Owner David Watson

SONIC Drive-In franchisee discusses decades of success that’s taken him from carhop to multi-unit owner

Sonic's Multi-Unit Owner Franchisee David WatsonDavid Watson has built his current empire of 26 successful SONIC Drive-In franchise locations primarily in middle Tennessee. His success through the decades embodies the American dream so many of our franchisees share.

David’s journey as an entrepreneur began on skates in a SONIC parking lot in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he spent his teenage years delivering burgers and tots. He stayed on board with SONIC through college and before finishing his degree went to work full-time for America’s Drive-In®, opening new restaurants all over the country.

“This was during the big boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we were opening locations every week,” David says. “Then I fell in love with a girl.”

The rest, as they say, is history. David got married, went back to school and got his master’s degree in business and began a new career outside of SONIC but thought about his time at SONIC daily.

In the mid-1980s David was driving from Memphis to Atlanta and stopped in Franklin, Tennessee, where he spotted a former SONIC drive-in that had been converted into a liquor store. “I paid $150,000 for the building and the land…everything. I got three partners to join me, one being my dad, and we opened in 1987. Since then I’ve probably owned about 60 SONIC locations.”

David is a firm believer in the operational excellence of franchising and is one of the founders of The Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at his alma mater, Brigham Young University, and frequently speaks to college students at BYU, as well as local middle Tennessee colleges and universities about franchising and entrepreneurism. David recently shared his excitement for the SONIC brand and his family’s involvement in the business, which includes son-in-law Blake Haines as director of operations.

This is his story:

What do you like about the direction SONIC is heading?

I feel so fortunate that I was able to go through the era when I was just starting as a franchisee with former CEO Steve Lynn. He came up with the idea of co-oping all of our advertising efforts and purchasing pooling in the late 1980s. I was blessed to be with the company because we just skyrocketed. Success magazine at the time ranked us as the No. 1 franchise, and I believe that — I really do. From Lori Osley [Senior Director of Franchise Sales/Development Marketing] to Drew Ritger [Senior Vice President for Development] to my field marketing reps to my operations people, they are always there to help franchisees.

What differentiates SONIC from other QSR concepts?

Of course, the first and foremost is the carhop service. We are the only QSR in the industry that does that. Second is our gigantic menu with all the choices. Third is the consistency of our operations and food. A good example is that when I was a teenager I promise you that the kitchen is exactly the same as it was. It hasn’t changed as far as layout. The equipment, of course, is upgraded and top of the line, but back then we had already perfected getting the food out the door fast.

What do you think of the Two Guys national advertising campaign?

When I travel by plane and I am wearing my SONIC shirt, someone will always approach me and ask, “I hear those commercials, my mouth waters and I hear the Two Guys. When will we get a SONIC in my town?” The national ad campaign is really getting people excited about new markets.

How often do you visit your restaurants?

My son-in law goes there every day since he is head of operations. I go there to eat or if there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Any time we do renovations I meet with the contractor on-site.

What do you like to order when you go to one of your restaurants?

My go-to order is a SONIC hamburger with mayo and mustard, tots with cheese and the hot fudge and peanut butter milkshake for dessert.

How does training and support from SONIC’s home office help you succeed as a business owner?

The consistency and product control is stellar. Every product we have has a flip chart.
Everything has exact specifications, and the home office support provides training online, so our employees do a lot of computer work before they actually step in the kitchen. We do a lot of training. SONIC is also really good with assistant manager training and management training classes. We also offer continual food safety classes. All these things are very beneficial.

What is your customer base like?

It really is 18 to 30 no matter how we look at it. They are the ones who spend money. The 30-year-olds, like my daughter who has an 8-, 6-, 4-, and 2-year-old, start to teach their children how to eat at SONIC, so when their kids turn 18, guess what? They are going to be SONIC fans with their own cars and their own money.

How do you give back to the local community?

You can call any school in Williamson County here in middle Tennessee and ask them if SONIC is involved and they will say, “Absolutely.” We are all over the schools in the county in which we operate. We sponsor YMCA ball teams left and right and the softball fields have SONIC signs all over them. We jump on board with any kind of school participation. Our locations are big on community involvement. We designate half a percent of our sales to use locally.

We really give our management the opportunity to become what I call Mr. or Mrs. SONIC in their community. We expect them to wear their SONIC shirts and aprons, have coupons in their pockets and go out in the community, stay involved and see where they can help. That’s how you build sales and business loyalty.

Why have you stayed with SONIC all these years?

I was really good at it. I understood it and I knew the business and that’s why, for me, it was such a draw. Plus I saw the future and knew SONIC was something that could grow, and I could have a bigger stake in it. That’s what drew me back. I’ve helped recruit probably a half dozen franchisees. It’s a great franchise; we get lots of support. If I had done “David’s Drive-In” instead of SONIC, I would have failed miserably.

Own a Sonic Franchise today

Learn more about SONIC

For in-depth details about the SONIC franchise opportunity, request franchise ownership information. You can also learn more by visiting our research pages.

Why Now Is a Great Time to Invest in SONIC

SONIC Drive-In ownership easier for investors due to low interest rates

SONICIf you are looking for a franchise with unprecedented brand recognition and pent-up national demand, now is a great time to invest in a SONIC® franchise. The U.S. Federal Reserve continues to keep interest rates at record lows, making it easier to bring our iconic American drive-in to your community.

SONIC has great potential as a long-term investment for seasoned operators who are well-versed in franchise systems or for experienced business owners who want to diversify their portfolios. Our company is focused on growth, aiming for 1,000 new locations over the next decade. SONIC is backed by visionary leadership, robust national advertising power and tier-one brand operational excellence.

2 Guys SDI Launch Image_1000px“It really is a fantastic time to open a SONIC franchisee. We have a best-in-class franchise support team that works with you every step of the way, strong brand equity and recognition even in markets where we have not yet opened thanks to our successful Two Guys national advertising campaign,” says Lori Osley, Senior Director of Franchise Sales/Development Marketing.

SONIC is America’s Drive-In®, serving more than 3 million customers a day at more than 3,500 locations nationwide. An iconic brand with a rich heritage encompassing more than 60 years, we believe in excellent customer service and developing core relationships with customers and the communities where our franchise owners operate. We are in the middle of a major nationwide expansion, capitalizing on a series of historic revenue increases — and joining SONIC makes more sense than ever.

From Discovery Day to opening day, we help franchisees succeed

Our corporate franchise support team is here to assist every step of the way. Once potential franchisees speak with Lori and go through the proper application channels, they are invited to attend Discovery Day at our Oklahoma City headquarters.

“Discovery Day is critical for potential franchisees,” Lori says. “We are a relationship brand, so we want to make sure we start that relationship on that first day.”

Prospective franchisees meet with SONIC’s core group of decision makers, from our real estate and construction team to our technology and operations teams. This is a big investment, and we want to ensure it is the perfect fit.

Once financing is approved, it typically takes 6 to 8 months to get a SONIC site secured. Construction and buildout of your restaurant takes an additional three months, depending on the area. We provide help throughout the process, analyzing critical factors such as demographics and traffic, to make the entire site-selection and construction process as stress-free as possible for franchisees.

Meeting the requirements to become a SONIC franchise owner

We are a brand with growth momentum. SONIC franchise owners saw average gross sales-by-store increase from $1,072,000 in 2012 to $1,246,000 in 2015, with more than 23 percent of our stores exceeding $1.5 million in gross sales in fiscal year 2015.

SONIC franchise owners must meet several specific requirements. In addition to total net worth of $1 million, a variety of attributes make an ideal SONIC franchisee: strong business acumen, restaurant experience and/or franchise experience, preferably as a multi-unit operator, and active involvement in their local community.

The franchise fee is $45,000, with an total estimated initial investment for a traditional SONIC ranging from $1.02 to $1.77 million, exclusive of land costs. The net worth of a partner can be used toward the total net worth/liquidity requirements. The term of a traditional SONIC franchise is 20 years plus a 10-year renewal.

Learn more about SONIC franchise opportunities

For in-depth details about the SONIC Drive-In franchise opportunity, download our free franchise report. You can also learn more by visiting our research pages.