Food & Drink

Is Sonic Southern?

An earnest overanalysis of a pressing query

Photo: courtesy of Sonic

A carhop and customers in 1967.

If you pose the question of whether the venerable drive-in chain Sonic is Southern to ten Southerners, it’s likely nine will emphatically respond, “Yes!” Then five of those will furrow their brows before mumbling, “Hmm. I mean, sure it is, right?”

Sonic certainly exudes a Southern-ish vibe. When’s the last time you rolled into a Sonic and didn’t spot people happily perched on a lowered tailgate? Generous portions? Check. And hey, if it’s not Southern, why does every SEC football broadcast seem to include twenty Sonic commercials?

Then again, the South doesn’t hold the patent on hamburgers or milkshakes, much less pimply teenage carhops. There is the weird pickle juice slushy—that’s got to be Southern. Except that the pickle flavor is actually dill, so it’s a toss-up at best. And unless Coney Island is also the name of a lesser-known part of the Outer Banks, the menu’s foot-long hot dog sits solidly in the Yankee column.

As is the case with most mysteries, we must look to history. As a footnote, Sonic makes a cameo in the video for Alabama’s 1983 hit “Dixieland Delight,” which can’t be said for any video by, say, Chicago or Boston. More pertinently, the precursor to Sonic, already rocking curbside speakers and the catchy slogan “Service at the Speed of Sound,” was established in 1959—in Shawnee, Oklahoma! That’s the South, folks. Not only that, the chain’s current HQ is in Atlanta. Case darn well closed.

photo: courtesy of Sonic
The original Sonic in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in the 1960s.

But…bless my tater tots, these days Sonic boasts 3,552 locations spanning forty-six states, from California to Rhode Island. Can we Southerners still confidently claim this coast-to-coast colossus as our own? Time to switch disciplines, however reluctantly, to math. Four minutes of feverish calculation and one broken pencil reveals—aha!—2,545 of those locations sling slushies in the South, a whopping 72 percent. Texas weighs in at 958 locations all by itself. Tennessee punches above its weight with 228 locations, while West Virginia underserves its citizens with only seven. Furthermore, three of the four states that suffer from an absence of Sonics are in the Northeast (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, along with perpetually neglected Hawaii).

photo: courtesy of sonic
A carhop on skates in 1973.

Turns out that Sonic itself is aware of its Southern-ness. “Sonic’s growth over the past seventy years has in large part been made possible thanks to our guests in the Southern United States,” says Brent Reams, Sonic’s external communications manager. “Even today the craveable offerings we’re constantly adding to our menu are often inspired by the flavors of the South.”

So, yes, Virginia, and all other Southern states, you may continue to feel a special warmth in your heart for Sonic. Or maybe just skip the chili cheese tots next time.