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