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Sonic drive-in restaurants expanding in Rochester

Rendering of a typical Sonic drive-in restaurant. The franchise hopes to expand to the Rochester area with five to seven more restaurants in addition to the two that already exist in Henrietta and Irondequoit. (Photo provided)

A Texas-based company that owns two Sonic restaurants in the Rochester area has plans for significant expansion of the franchise in the Upstate market.

SOAR QSR, headquartered in the Dallas suburb of Plano, bought Sonic Drive-In eateries in Henrietta and Irondequoit early in the year and believes the brand’s business model matches perfectly the post-pandemic preferences of consumers.

So SOAR QSR has a development agreement as a franchisee to build and open five to seven more restaurants in Rochester and Syracuse in the near future, while also looking at locations across the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier.

Nik Bhakta

“It’s a unique brand that has that nostalgia from the ’50s and ’60s when drive-ins were prevalent,” said Nik Bhakta, principal in SOAR QSR. “There’s a diverse menu with down-home cooking, plus ice cream and a heavy drink component.”

One thing they don’t have, however: an eat-in seating area. At Sonic there’s a drive-thru window and the traditional drive-in stalls, where the car becomes the dining room.

“You’ll see from eight to 10 stalls at most Sonics, and up to 40 stalls in the south where the brand is really big,” Bhakta said.

That grab-and-go feature is why SOAR QSR is sold on the brand.

“During COVID, people were using third-party delivery services to eat at home, and they’ve become accustomed to it,” Bhakta said. “Sonic’s always been that way. You order and go, or eat at the stall, listen to your own music and get some work done.”

SOAR didn’t enter the quick serve restaurant sector until 2019, yet the company already owns 103 Sonic restaurants in a dozen states. That includes the two in Greater Rochester (at 995 E. Ridge Rd. and 945 Jefferson Rd.), plus two in Syracuse and one in Watertown.

Sonic is one of seven restaurant labels owned by Inspire Brands. Others include Dunkin’, Buffalo Wild Wings and Arby’s.

“We looked at all of the other franchises, Checkers, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s; believe me, we looked at all of them,” Bhakta said. “But we really like Sonic. The executive leadership at Sonic was moving in the right direction and being a part of Inspire (Brands), we can piggyback off that.”

For instance, if a Dunkin franchisee is looking to build a new location but only needs a portion of the plot of land, SOAR could take the remaining parcel for a Sonic.

The local restaurants acquired by SOAR were in what Bhakta described as a “little bit of a distressed situation” under previous ownership. Knowing SOAR was continuing to expand, Sonic’s corporate office reached out to see if the firm would be interested in taking over.

“They see us as good operators and we have a presence in the Northeast already in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, so they knew it would fit in,” Bhakta said.

He isn’t sure when the first new builds will begin in Rochester, but they’re looking.

“It really comes down to best available real estate,” Bhakta said. “We’d be willing to open five more if we find the right real estate.”

Bhakta believes they’d just be starting to catch up to what he calls the Big Three in the quick-serve hamburger arena: McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. There are two dozen McDonald’s restaurants in the Rochester area, 20 Burger Kings and 16 Wendy’s.

But he said SOAR is a believer in Sonic because of the menu and the options for diners.

“We’re the only ones with hot dogs and varieties of ice cream and drinks,” he said. “There’s fountain drinks, cherry-limeades, ocean waters. There’s an infinite amount of combinations of drinks. If you like blueberry in your Coke, you can do that.”

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