Longtime SONIC Drive-In franchise owner Greg Rowden on living out the American dream through decades of SONIC success
Greg Rowden began his career with SONIC Drive-In as a carhop and cook when he was a 15-year-old freshman in high school. Since then, Greg Rowden has built an empire of nearly 30 successful SONIC Drive-In franchise locations in his home state of Arkansas. Greg’s success through the decades is an embodiment of the American dream that franchising with America’s Drive-In has given to so many entrepreneurs since our founding over 60 years ago.
After opening his first SONIC Drive-In in his hometown of Searcy, Arkansas, in 1990, Greg continued to expand. Greg entered into a formal business partnership in 2001 with partners Ricky Davis and David Hall, both seasoned SONIC veterans with close to 80 years of experience between them, as DHR SONIC Group.
“SONIC is one of those great American success stories. You really do get to work your way up. I was actually working at SONIC while I was going to college. I ended up staying in SONIC and today, along with my two partners, I own 28 stores across the state of Arkansas,” says Greg.
Greg recently shared his excitement for the SONIC brand which is still strong after 35 years and his plans to expand to 50 locations by 2026. He discussed his long-term success with SONIC as well as the bright future of the beloved American drive-in as we innovate, embrace technology and stay ahead of customer trends, all while staying true to our iconic brand’s roots and offering what no other QSR can offer.
This is his story.
What do you think about the direction SONIC is headed in?
I love the fact that we are going into a new modern era using new technologies and we are extremely proactive in being at the cutting edge of those new technologies. The unique thing about SONIC is we always pay tribute to our past and stay true to our roots. That’s one of the things I love most about SONIC. We’re not eliminating carhops. We’re not suddenly doing anything but sit down restaurants or drive-thrus and no stalls. We try to stay as true to our roots as possible, all while being adaptable. I love the direction SONIC is going in because we push the envelope as far as technology, but we are staying true to our roots.
Tell us how the SONIC culture is unique.
Part of growing up in the SONIC system is knowing that everyone is available to you. From what I hear after speaking with other business owners is that is unique to us at SONIC. The thing I love about SONIC is literally we can call or email anybody at any time and we get an immediate response. I don’t care if it’s an emergency question or if it’s just “hey, I’m kind of wondering about this.” To me it speaks volumes about our culture and family-oriented nature. I really feel like I am part of that national SONIC family. I’ve been the president of the local advertising co-op and many initiatives through the years that enhance that family-type relationship so unique to SONIC. I’ve literally been able to email or call our CEO Cliff Hudson if I want to.
What personal attributes make a successful SONIC franchisee?
I think a potential franchisee has to have a sincere love of people and a desire to be a part of a family culture. What we find is that this is not the path for someone who wants to jump into any business that will make money. But if they love people and they really want to come and embrace our culture it’s really a wonderful home.
What do you think about the Two Guys campaign?
I’m a sucker for humor. I love to laugh, so I love their brand of humor and I think it’s unique to SONIC. I love the way they approach things. I fell in love with them 20-something years ago before they even got on TV because I was part of the franchise advisory council who got to preview some of the ads. One thing I do know about those two guys is they drive interest. Whether you love them or hate them, you tend to watch them and identify with them.
How do the strong dayparts at SONIC help build your business and customer base?
Our customers have become so loyal over time. And I think that goes back to the uniqueness of our menu and our concept. We have those customers who come every morning to get a breakfast burrito and we have the 99-cent drink stop where they can get a large Vanilla Diet Coke. We have a lot of business people who come in and have a cheeseburger on their lunch break and read their newspaper in their car. We have tons of parents who are picking up their kids from school who stop in to try our drinks. Then we have our dinner rush.
What’s unique about our menu is the customization. No matter who you have in the car and what their desires are, we’ve got something for them. You may have a mom who has been busy all day and they really want a Breakfast Toaster at 7 o’clock at night while someone else gets a Chili Cheese Coney and somebody else gets a cheeseburger. Our late evenings have become dominated with unique ice cream items. It’s also unique how our customers have learned to customize all of our food and drinks.
How does SONIC’s training help you succeed as a franchisee?
I feel like SONIC has the best training program there is. My business partners and I personally believe it’s so valuable that we send every manager and assistant manager to SONIC training schools all over the country because we know that investment will come back to us and when they come back they will be better for it.
Tell us about the dynamic formula for success behind your business partnership.
I’m sort of the spokesperson and extrovert. I do whatever I can to support and encourage the team. We each have our own unique gift. David’s gift is in finances. Ricky is the developer and he has passion and the unique eye for going into some of these small towns and launching very successful SONIC locations.
We own a SONIC Drive-In in a small town called Quitman, Arkansas, with just 700-something people. At first David and myself just laughed at Ricky. After about a year of him being persistent about the traffic and the opportunity in that community he won David over but I was the lone standout. So for another year, the two of them tried to convince me we would make it there. Finally I said, “OK, I believe in you guys, but I just want to go on record to say I get the opportunity to say ‘I told you so.’” So we build the Quitman location and it opens at $1.5 million in annual sales from the get go. It does extremely well profit wise, as well as people wise. And so they tell me I no longer have the right to say “no.”
How does SONIC differ from other QSRs in the industry?
It’s all about people. I was taught that SONIC is not a burger business, it is a people business. Our commitment to our people and our relationships plus our unique culture is what makes us different from other QSRs. Most other QSRs are based on either operations or facilities. They are almost a cookie-cutter approach.
At SONIC we also have unbelievably loyal customers. We know most of our customers by name and we’ve even had customers bring carhops Christmas presents. If you interviewed any of our customers they would not refer to our SONIC as the SONIC or the SONIC at this location, they would say “my SONIC.” You can’t be in one of our towns without seeing SONIC as sponsors of everything. Our teams do things that show that we care. It’s just a uniqueness that you don’t see anywhere else in the business.