Like any marriage uniting partners with strong personalities and points of view, the franchisee/franchisor relationship can be a rocky one. But for the past three years, Sonic Drive-In’s franchisees have given the chain top scores across the board in our yearly Brand Satisfaction Survey. Achieving such high levels of harmony in even a couple of categories would be considered a major coup by any company. It is particularly impressive for a company in which 80 percent of its more than 3,200 units are franchise-owned. So we decided to ask some of the Oklahoma-based fast-feeder’s franchise partners to help us explore some of the philosophies, policies, and programs behind the Sonic satisfaction phenomenon.
In 2005, Sonic franchisees gave their brand an overall satisfaction score of 2.4 based on a scale that valued 1 the best and 5 the worst. At that time, franchisees of other chains in the survey gave their companies an aggregate score of 2.6. By 2007, the gap had dramatically grown, with Sonic earning a 1.8, while the aggregate score was 2.5. see chart 1
Bobby Merritt, operator of 138 Sonic Drive-In units, explains that this boost in his own bullishness, as well as that of his fellow franchisees, has been fueled by a can-do culture in which both franchisor and franchisee work together to pool information and ideas that become the basis for “courageous” initiatives.
“We don’t just take for granted that we can’t do something simply because it’s never been done before,” Merritt explains.
Thirty-unit operator Gary Kinslow equates brand success with exceptional employee retention.
“We have almost no manager or supervisor turnover, and our average manager seniority is more than 12 years,” Kinslow says. “It would be more, but we continue to bring on new people all the time to handle our growth.”
And it’s not just the employees who tend to stick around. When franchisees such as Merritt and Kinslow refer to their “Sonic Family,” they’re talking about relationships that go back three or more decades. Some even span generations.
Store profitability has been a steady source of franchisee satisfaction, beginning with a decent score in 2005 to a significantly better one in 2006 and again in 2007 (compared to a slight decline in the aggregate survey stores of 2.8 in 2005 to 2.6 the following two years). Unit-level profitability ranged from a high of 26.6 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2005, compared with other surveyed hamburger chains, which reached a peak 21.9 percent in 2005.