Sonic's Turnaround Plan: Start Serving Real Ice Cream

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 9:15 AM EDT

After seeing its modest decline in existing-store sales last year mushroom in 2010, managers at the Sonic Drive-In chain have quit blaming bad weather and the economy. Oklahoma City-based parent Sonic Inc. has a turnaround plan now which involves breaking down and putting real, honest-to-God ice cream in its shakes, among other things. Apparently, providing desserts that would actually be delicious had never previously occurred to managers.

That's right -- even though the 3,560-unit chain prides itself on being a cut above low-rent fast food, it's been serving frozen desserts with so little milk in them that the treats had to be called "soft serve," because they did not legally qualify to be called "ice cream." While they're at it, they're stretching their "extra-long" chili-cheese Coney hot dog so that it is now a foot long, like everybody else's long dogs.

Perhaps Sonic listened to customer complaints about its shakes. One blogger did a comparison last summer between a Dairy Queen blizzard, a Blast from southern/northeastern regional chain Bruster's, and a Sonic Blast. Sonic was the big loser.

"...thin ice cream and tiny bits of Butterfinger for about $3 (plus tip)... C'mon Sonic, are you even trying?" blogger Matt Shorr wrote. "You can make a 2-pound burger but not a passable ice cream treat? Did you trade your passion for glory?"
To the company's credit, Sonic chairman and CEO J. Clifford Hudson discussed the quality issue frankly in a recent company earnings call, saying, "The new iceam is richer, it is thicker, it is creamier than our current soft serve, which is what we have to call it because that is what it has been -- a non-ice cream, lower-fat dairy product. In fact, this is real ice cream..."

Next, the company plans a media blitz to try to win customers back with news of its improved product quality. It's probably too much to hope for that Sonic would run a frank campaign like Domino's Pizza (DPZ) recently did, introducing its new pizza recipe by telling customers about the poor-quality pizza they used to make. But it might not be a bad idea. When you've disappointed customers to this degree, it'll take some creativity to get them back in the doors.

Photo via Flickr user jeffisageek

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.