#3 on the Franchise 500: Sonic Drive-In Looks to the Future The #3 company on our Franchise 500 list may be built on the idea of nostalgia, but a new wave of tech-focused initiatives is laying a strong foundation for years to come.

By Matthew McCreary

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This story appears in the January 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Sonic Drive-In

Started franchising: 1959
Total units: 3,606
Cost to open: $865K–$3.6M

What's old is new again.

When people talk about "companies of the future," they typically mean Silicon Valley flash -- not a drive-in burger-and-shake restaurant developed in 1953. But Sonic Drive-In believes its recipe of old-timey service marries well with modern tech, and the numbers back it up. There are now more than 3,600 Sonics in the U.S. That focus on tech and service helped propel Sonic to the #3 spot in the Franchise 500, up from #6 in 2018.

Related: 7 Fast-Food Franchises Had More Sales Than Chick-fil-A Last Year. Can You Name Them?

"People perceive the drive-in as retro," says president Claudia San Pedro, "but we were really built for the future."

For Sonic, that vision begins with its app. It implemented an "order ahead" feature in July and has worked to expand its availability across the country since. Now customers can order before they arrive -- and when they arrive, Sonic's antique setting becomes suddenly very relevant. Customers can park their cars in a stall, check in, and receive their food via carhop without waiting in a drive-through line or a crowded mobile-pickup area. Sonic argues that it's a more comfortable, easy, and efficient operation than its competitors can offer. (Of course, customers can also still drive up and order from the stalls.)

Related: How These Franchisees Keep Their Young Workforce Motivated

With app-based orders rising, San Pedro says Sonic has an even bigger goal for 2019: using mobile-order data to target marketing to individual customers, letting them know about the products most relevant to their specific interests. "Our goal," she says, "is to learn exactly what our consumer likes and personalize messages on a one-to-one basis."

To see our complete Franchisee 500 rankings, please click here, or view more stories here.

Matthew McCreary

Entrepreneur Staff

Associate Editor, Contributed Content

Matthew McCreary is the associate editor for contributed content at Entrepreneur.com.

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