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Sonic sales are going bonkers during COVID-19 — here's the major reason why

It pays dividends during a pandemic to have a restaurant model that since inception encourages people to eat in their comfy and clean cars.

Welcome to life for Inspire Brands-owned Sonic, which is the country’s largest drive-in restaurant chain at 3,500 or so locations. Inspire Brands CEO Paul Brown tells Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade sales growth for Sonic is currently running up 30%.

“First, it’s the car centric model,” Brown said when asked to explain the eye-popping sales gains at Sonic that put it on par with the nation’s hottest restaurant chain in the pandemic — Papa John’s. “The ability to serve the customer through the drive-thru and drive-in is what’s happening today. We added capacity with seats at the drive-thru. That worked out well. But also our digital sales we have gone from 4% of sales at Sonic to over 10% because of our order-ahead digital platform. So that has helped us. It’s a great concept and it has a great product offering in snacking and lunch.”

Here is a look at the new Sonic. Two of these designs are now in operation.
Here is a look at the new Sonic.

Inspire Brands completed its $2.3 billion acquisition of Sonic in December 2018. Since then, Brown and his team have overhauled the brand’s marketing and improved the chain’s digital ordering platform. More recently, Sonic unveiled a new restaurant design that emphasizes safe eating outside alongside the traditional eating in your car format (see new design above). Sales at the first two redesigned Sonics are running up 80%, Brown notes.

Ultimately, it’s a design that others in the restaurant industry may look to copy as dine-in service could become a thing of the past because of the pandemic.

As for Inspire’s other brands (it also owns Buffalo Wild Wings, Arby’s, Rusty Taco and Jimmy John’s), performance has been more mixed. Arby’s sales are up about 15% this quarter, while the likes of Buffalo Wild Wings battles limited dine-in service and a spotty season for major sports.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-anchor of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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