When were travelling through Wyoming, we spent a night in the dot on the map town of Lusk. I had read they had an old fashioned Drive-In burger joint and was keen to visit but the ever present ‘closed for the season’ sign that haunted our holiday meant visiting a drive-in burger restuarant would have to wait for another lifetime. Or so I thought.
Arnold’s Big Al’s
Arriving in Cortez, Colorado we cruised past not one but two drive-ins. One was an independent that was, sigh… ‘closed for the season’. The other was a franchise called ‘Sonic’. A drive-in, is not a drive-in where you queue in your car to buy tickets, have your car boot checked for stowaways, park and attach a speaker to your window, move spots and attach another speaker that works, then sit in your car and watch a movie on the big screen. A drive-in is a place where you pull up and order a meal from your car and it’s delivered to you by a car hop. It’s a bit like a drive through but with no driving. Just like Arnold’s in Happy Days. Of course, we had to try it out.
Whilst I was vaguely familiar with the name Sonic, I had no idea they were a drive-in style burger chain with over 3000 locations across the US. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that drive-ins still exist but apparently they do and Sonic has defied the odds, maintaining its popularity for over 50 years. Starting out as a steakhouse with a separate root beer and hot dog stand that operated only in the summer (of course…), the owners quickly realised they were making more money from the root beer stand than the restaurant. They also realised that if they delivered food to cars, they had no need for restaurant fixtures and could keep costs down. Thus, Sonic was born.
As it turned out, we didn’t have a chance to visit the one in Cortez but we did finally get to visit in Kayenta, Arizona. Kayenta is a small town that is the gateway to Monument Valley and home of the Navajo Code Talkers.
Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer
Sonic clearly strikes a chord with a nostalgic public remembering times gone by. Childhoods of endless summers filled with amusement park food of hot dogs, coneys and curly fries. Sonic’s old fashioned hand made real ice-cream shakes, cream slushes, sundaes and drinks are singled out on numerous lists as being exceptional and the thing that sets them apart. Even more fabulous, Sonic runs an annual competition where skating car hops can compete to be the ‘Best Car Hop’. Ah yes…the good old days….even though I wasn’t even born in the 1950’s, I remember it well….
It’s hard to comprehend the popularity of these drive ins. The food on offer is standard burger chain fare and not particularly cheap in comparison. Yet, the Cortez drive-in was chock-a-block on both nights we drove past, with over 30 cars parked in the dining bays as well as cars in the drive through.
Even on a Tuesday lunch time, there were well over a dozen cars parked in the Kayenta Sonic at any one time. Memory and a fondness for looking into the past through rose coloured glasses combined with the convenience of being able to drive right up means Sonic has a place in the hearts and minds of middle America.