The Sonic fast-food restaurant scheduled to open May 12 on Cantrell Road in Little Rock is the first of its kind in Arkansas — and only the third of its kind in the nation — to forego the franchise’s signature drive-in feature and invite diners to eat inside.
Situated on a busy retail strip in the Riverdale neighborhood, the location originally was slated for a traditional Sonic. However, both the Little Rock Planning Commission and Board of Directors in 2003 denied the zoning variance required to allow a drive-in after neighbors (including Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times) raised objections about light and noise from multiple loudspeakers.
How significant is this departure? Sonic’s corporate tagline is “America’s Drive-In.” (You’ll still be able to pick up an order at a drive-by window.)
But the dining experience at the new Little Rock establishment will still be familiar to regular Sonic customers, promises Chris McKeever, the marketing manager in the corporation’s Oklahoma City headquarters.
Instead of sitting in a car and ordering food over the intercom, diners will go inside and pick up a phone at a table to place an order. Servers will bring the food to the table, just as they would to a car at a more typical Sonic.
“You get the same kind of car hop experience that way,” McKeever said. “The food is no different, it’s the same menu.”
This eat-in model is already being used at one location in Phoenix, and at another next door to the national office in Oklahoma City. It is more practical for urban areas, where viable properties are smaller and fewer people have cars. Sonic may also want to build eat-in restaurants in cities with colder climates.
“We would love to go into those Northern markets,” McKeever said. “That is something we are looking at.”
However, it may take some time for Arkansans to get used to the new concept, because in many small towns around the state, the Sonic drive-in is a hub of social activity. High school students congregate at many of them, driving laps around the restaurant and decreeing a particular side of the parking lot the “cool” place to pull in.
At least one Little Rock resident was skeptical of the eat-in Sonic.
“The attraction to Sonic has always been the style of service,” said Martin Bynum, who cruised Sonic while growing up in Pine Bluff. “It was cool and different to be served in your car like that. Changing that almost changes the complete identity of the restaurant. You can get a hamburger anywhere, so having to go inside to eat goes against the whole reason of going to a Sonic in my opinion.”
McKeever said, however, that the company has been pleased with its two existing eat-in restaurants.