Iconic drive-in franchise president explains what makes SONIC a unique, forward-thinking investment opportunity
Claudia San Pedro was promoted to president of SONIC® in February 2018, and after more than 12 years in high-profile positions with the iconic drive-in franchise, San Pedro is uniquely qualified to help lead the growing brand into the future.
In her new role, San Pedro will be primarily responsible for franchisee relationships, managing the supply chain, leading franchise development efforts and business planning. San Pedro’s ascension to president comes as SONIC is emerging as the rare brand that can leverage a 65-year history as a nostalgic, American drive-in franchise into being one of the most forward-thinking franchise systems in the industry.
In the interview below, San Pedro opens up in a wide-ranging conversation about what makes SONIC unique, how SONIC values its franchisees and why SONIC is a brand with a bright future.
What makes SONIC unique in the competitive QSR market?
San Pedro: The restaurant industry is incredibly competitive, and it’s so important to be able to differentiate yourself. One of the reasons I love the SONIC brand is that we’re differentiated on multiple levels. Physically, we’re a drive-in concept — which is more relevant than ever, given technology and how consumers want to access their food. With our concept, the customer controls the process. They decide when they want to order and how they want their food and drinks. Our customers can order anything on our menu any way they want it. Customization is built into our brand’s DNA. We have one of the most distinctive menus in the industry featuring unique sides like hand breaded onion rings, mozzarella sticks and tater tots, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and six-inch premium hot dogs in addition to our real fruit drinks and slushes. Finally, we are differentiated in terms of our service model, which is our personalized carhop. In this day and age, having that personalized carhop experience is a nice way to build relationships with our customers
Why is SONIC so popular with consumers?
San Pedro: We’re not just serving food; we’re creating memories. We can make a bad day go well with good food and drinks. That’s important to us. It’s not food as a survival piece — SONIC is nourishment for the soul. When you come to SONIC, it’s a great way to spend time with your friends and family.
SONIC is well-known for its inclusive culture between its franchisees and the executive team. Why is this relationship vital to the success of the SONIC brand?
San Pedro: One of our core values is relationships as a way of life. That is important to us because the franchisor/franchisee partnership is critical to the success of the brand. One of the ways that we really work to live our values is in making sure our franchisees are involved from day one in providing input into any major aspect of our business. Whether it’s a marketing initiative, a development initiative, a technology initiative, or product innovation, our Franchisee Advisory Council is with us from the beginning. They work with us to ideate and test the initiative until we ultimately launch system-wide implementation. We understand that if it weren’t for our franchisees we wouldn’t be successful, so garnering their input and having good discussion and debate about how to move the brand forward is the best way we can all ensure success for the future.
While other brands struggle to recruit younger and more diverse buyers, SONIC is one of the industry’s leading brands in this regard. Why?
San Pedro: Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. Many small businesses begin with one idea that is generated by an independent entrepreneur. What’s wonderful about the franchise business model is that it facilitates that dream. If you look at where we’re able to shine, it’s not only providing opportunities for entrepreneurs whose families may have been here for hundreds of years, and it’s about providing opportunities for new immigrants or second-generation immigrants who want to grow their business. Franchising is an excellent way to start small, and over time, build a large business.
What is special about the culture of SONIC?
San Pedro: The important part of our culture is that you take yourself seriously enough to run a good business, focusing on growing sales and profits. At the same time, you spend a lot of time with the people you work with, and you need to have a good time. We’re only on this earth for a short amount of time, so we really strive to take ourselves seriously when we need to, and we also want to have fun and meet great people along the way.
What is exciting about the future of SONIC?
San Pedro: If you look at the heritage of the brand, we’re more than 60 years old. Many people think of us as a nostalgic, drive-in brand, but the reality is that we’re all about the future. If you had to build a new concept today that could leverage technology in the most relevant, meaningful way to the consumer, providing personalized food and drinks, the ability to order ahead to reduce the friction of waiting in a drive-thru line or having to get out of your car to go indoors, you would build a drive-in model. What’s perfect about it for us is that our heritage is based on doing it the way the consumer wants. So if you want an onion ring on your hamburger, that comes completely naturally to us because that is a part of our brand DNA. Consumers now more than ever want to be able to have as many choices as they can. If you think about the future and how we need to leverage technology to drive a much better customer service experience, we are uniquely suited to deliver on that proposition.
What is the future of SONIC’s franchise development?
San Pedro: We have franchisees who have been a part of our system for 20 and 30 years, and we also have franchisees who have just joined our system. They may start off with 10 drive-ins, and have goals of owning 200 drive-ins over the next 10 years. We have a wonderful balance of new franchisees coming into the system, where SONIC is their first foray into the restaurant industry, as well as franchisees who own multiple other concepts and have significant experience in the restaurant industry.
When you think about SONIC, there are very few brands that garner the brand awareness that we do and have the marketing power that we do, while also having so much green space available to be built upon.