by Clint Boulton

How Sonic Drive-In serves up mobile ordering

Jan 02, 20195 mins
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipMobile

Sonic Drive-In has revamped its order-ahead and drive-through delivery capabilities to create a frictionless, personal experience for its customers.

Reinventing the experience for consumers in the digital age is a daunting evolution for quick-service chains struggling to stay afloat in a sea of similar choices. Sonic Drive-In is taking a bite out of this challenge by pairing its core assets — drive-in stalls and carhops — with mobile and analytics technologies to build a better digital touchpoint for customers.

Sonic earlier this year launched an order-ahead service that enables consumers to place an order through the company’s mobile app and pull into any of the 25 to 40 stalls outside the company’s 3,600 U.S. locations to pick up their food. The differentiating factor? People don’t get stuck in a line, says Jon Dorch, Sonic’s vice president of integrated customer engagement. “We like to say the customers are first in line, every time,” Dorch tells

The mixed results of mobile ordering

It’s an interesting counter to one of the chief operational bugbears of most quick-service chains’ mobile ordering services. High volumes have confused employees, which in turn have bogged down services for consumers stuck at the counter who didn’t elect to use the mobile ordering option. In this regard, Sonic’s stalls and assortment of digital tools are a huge asset, enabling the company to create a frictionless, yet personalized service, says Dorch.

Here’s how Sonic’s order-ahead service works: When a customer orders from the mobile app and pulls into any of the numbered stalls, the driver hits the “check-in” button on the mobile app and types in the stall number so that the carhop knows where the customer is parked.

This is where the personalization aspect comes in. Each stall is equipped with a touchscreen that displays the customer’s name and avatar, order status (for example, “in the kitchen”), and the name of the carhop delivering the food. Most order-ahead meals are delivered in two minutes or less once a customer has checked into a stall.

That service stands to get more personal over time — and with the ordering and consumption of many burgers and tater tots.

Sonic will eventually send consumers targeted loyalty offers, based on their purchase history, directly through the mobile app, Dorch says, adding that he and his team are currently evaluating rules engines with which to integrate loyalty rewards. Offers could appear as customers check in to a Sonic stall, or drivers could get an impromptu ping when they drive by a Sonic location, courtesy of GPS-based geofencing capabilities.

Behind the build

Sonic spent the past few years working with digital technology firm R/GA on redesigning and rebuilding the mobile app, implementing the touchscreens (also known as Personalized Point of Service systems, or POPS) and connecting them and other systems to various cloud services in a system it calls DIP — the digital innovation platform.

Owing to variables in its menus and pricing, Sonic couldn’t leverage commercial off-the-shelf software or a white-label solution to build DIP, let alone the mobile app and POPS systems. “That won’t work for Sonic because of the complexities and modifications to menu orders,” Dorch says.

DIP comprises custom software and infrastructure built from the ground up, says Katrina Bekessy, executive technology director of R/GA Austin. This includes new suite of APIs, new software for the POPS screens at each drive-in stall, connectors that manage all orders for each POS system at each Sonic location, and apps to manage all menu data and customization options for menu items internally. These systems are hosted in a hybrid cloud composed of Amazon Web Services and Pivotal CloudFoundry.

Sonic eventually expects to have more than 90,000 POPS digital screens across its nearly 3,600 drive-in locations as part of this transformation. “Sonic is nothing but green field,” Bekessy says. “Everything has been built from the ground up to be tailored for where they want to go.”

New options for the digital menu

Expect new digital services on the DIP, say Dorch and Bekessy. Sonic is mulling interactive entertainment options to take advantage of its POPS screens. This could include music via Spotify or some such streaming services, games, augmented reality (AR), or even AR-based games, Dorch says.

And should Sonic decide one day it needs to enable ordering via virtual assistants, the programmatic, API-based nature of the DIP enables Sonic and R/GA to easily extend ordering capabilities to Amazon Alexa virtual assistants, or perhaps through text messaging or other mediums.

“There is a lot of potential to target users and personalize for micromoments,” Bekessy says.

Personalized service is a tack many restaurant conglomerates have embraced at a time when sales across most U.S.-based casual dining and traditional quick-service chains have softened, thanks to shifting consumer preferences for newer, novel chains and independent restaurants.

Dine Brands Global, owner of U.S. restaurant brands IHOP and Applebees, is enabling consumers to order from their homes by speaking to Google Assistant software or from their cars via General Motors’ and Chevy’s head units. TGI Fridays is using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help mix drinks and target consumers with highly personalized offers.