Operator sticking to Sonic for life
Let’s go way back to when you first started at Sonic. How did that come about?
I never had a car growing up. I told my dad I was going to college, and I told him I wanted a car for school. He said, ‘Well Ricky, if you want a car, you better go get a job.’ I was about 25 miles from school, and I decided to drive back and forth. Found me a little Mustang, worked all four years and became assistant manager. I was planning on being a math teacher and baseball coach. Then my boss offered me this store. It had a lot of problems and it was just struggling.
How did it go?
The longer I worked in it, the better I got. That little store went from a terrible situation to where I started seeing success. I had to go in and just work 70, 80 or 100 hours a week to get it working right to make it successful. But it’s where I met my wife and we ran the store for 14 years.
You were able to grow to better than system average volumes in a town of 732 people. How?
We want to make sure when they come in, it’s the best; that they’re going to crave our burgers. It’s the little bitty things that make a great store. I’m real particular about quality of food, how you put that bun on the butter machine. How you cook that burger. I always say, ‘If the juice ain’t running down my elbow you ain’t doing it right.’ It’s a small customer base but they come and do business with you, you can hit a big volume. We’ve got people who come in two, three times a day.
How were you able to achieve the same quality at 24 small-market locations?
My wife, Cindy, she could train someone on anything. Between her teaching and me coaching them and motivating them to be the best, that was it. It’s not rocket science, you got to just go in and have a clean operation, you got to find good help and train them. One thing you’ll find in our employees, we develop a very strong sense of urgency. If you’re paying attention when that customer pushes a button, it’s like an alarm going off.
Staff writer Nicholas Upton asks what makes multi-unit operators tick—and presents their slightly edited answers in this column in each issue. To suggest a subject, email email@example.com.
What does it take to keep good talent in a small town?
We create a great atmosphere in our stores; it’s kind of like a little family. A lot of our stores that we have today are run by kids that we grew in the business, that started for us at 15 or 16 and now they’re leaders in the company. They know that if they stick around long enough, something good will happen.
And like your former boss and now partner, you’re willing to give up a chunk of the equity.
Yeah, I learned this from Gene Longworth [one of Sonic’s first managers in 1961] who learned it from Troy Smith, the founder. We sell partnerships. Not only can you be a partner in that store, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll have other opportunities and those managers become supervisors.
What comes after nearly 50 years running Sonics?
One of my great blessings in Sonic, it allows me to give my kids a good career, but more importantly they all live right here. Now I’m going to slow down in Sonic and let my kids handle the restaurants while I handle the grandkids.