Why a well-built app is driving sales and brand loyalty at Sonic Drive-In

December 9, 2019 Estelle Hayes

To stay relevant with competitors, Sonic Drive-In leadership knew it would need to offer a premium mobile app to connect its 3,600 stores with its 8.5 million active users. But moving from a white-label app to developing custom software that can scale, while connected to monolith applications within each store front, would require an investment on par with Sonic’s iconic marketing campaigns. It would take a dramatic shift in IT processes and technologies to develop a seamless customer experience across each of the restaurant's 85,000 drive-up stalls.   

In their talk at SpringOne Platform 2019, Allen Plummer, IT director of platform engineering for Sonic Drive-In, and Pivotal platform architect John Gammon, talked in detail about Sonic’s digital transformation, which was spurred by the rise of mobile apps within the quick-service industry. Specifically, they explain the technology and cultural changes that unfolded while building Sonic’s highly rated “Order Ahead” app.

The entire session goes into some details around architecture, KPIs, and app experience, but here are a few quotes from Plummer that highlight what Sonic has learned.

Scaling in partnership with Pivotal

"[W]e put a significant amount of dollars into marketing. And so with all of the money that goes into marketing . . . it's been only recently that we actually started putting a major investment in technology to undergird that marketing. . . . [H]aving the technology with Pivotal, in partnership with Pivotal, being able to actually put that forward at scale to our customers to deliver on what we promise in our marketing, has been very important for us."

Take advantage of your strengths, and think about the customer

"If you're a computer guy, you think sequential versus parallel. [The Sonic drive-in] is a parallel model, so theoretically you can process things a bit more faster. So it's very interesting when you think about this versus a drive-through model or counter-pickup model. . . .

". . . [G]oing into a drive-through with an order-ahead experience at a quick service restaurant, you're still in a line. You still get in a queue of some sort to actually go and get your food. You think of another experience where you might have a counter-pickup of an order-ahead. You still have to get out of your car and go inside and actually get your food.

"At Sonic, however, you don't have to talk to anybody, you don't have to get out of your car.  . . . Being able to actually get my order right each time and know that it's going to come out fresh and hot, and the way I like it, that's important to me."

Platform thinking drives better business 

"Our Version One mobile app was a white-label app. We went out to market and we found somebody that actually did these kinds of things and just skinned it for us. And it was not something that we're proud of, nor could we maintain.

"It's one of those things where it's like, 'OK, let's learn from our mistakes and move on and start going into platform thinking. Let's build a platform that can actually facilitate a business outcome— multiple business outcomes—from multiple channels.' . . . [T]his is an opportunity for us to realize some mistakes and be able to actually make things right. This was set up as the North Star for our digital innovation platform."

Good UX can hide a complex architecture

"[I]t's a pretty significant undertaking with the technology at the store. . . . There are 85,000 stalls, 3,600 stores—about 3,400 of those are Order-Ahead-enabled—but there are various permutations of different POSes that are at the store . . . And so there's different ways, kind of 'glueware,' that we have to do some integration work at the store level to actually make this stuff happen.

". . . The source of truth for pricing is at the store. Because it's a 95 percent franchisee-owned place, the franchisees can actually set their prices the way they like. So as you're using the mobile app—every time you go to the cart and get the pricing for the corn dog or a combo meal or whatever—it's actually going down to the store—the backend POS for that particular store—and bringing that back up through the cloud, through Cloud Foundry, and back into your mobile app. So there's a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong."

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