Sonic is returning to the Philadelphia area, with stores in Port Richmond and Audubon, NJ set to open this month. These launches are actually re-openings, as both locations were previous Sonics that shuttered as recently as this spring. We were very curious as to what brought the brand back and whether we could look forward to a Center City Sonic in the near future, so we reached out to franchise owner Don Welsh. During our chat, the restaurateur answered all these questions and also provided other fun tidbits - for example, he is the man responsible for the fact that a “Philadelphia Cheesesteak” shows up on the official Sonic corporate menu. Read on to find out how made that happen and learn more Philly Sonic news.
Zagat: Have you owned Sonics before these two?
Don Welsh: I’ve been with the brand since 2005. My partners Jeff Solomon, Tom Scrurria and I opened our first in Lancaster County, and we’ve been moving steadily east since then. When the two newest open this fall (with partner Nolan Aspell), we’ll run 11 different Sonic locations.
Zagat: Why did these Sonic locations close, and what will you do to keep them open?
DW: Another guy had gotten the franchise rights to this area, but it didn’t work out for him. I don’t know any of the specifics about why they closed, but we’ve been doing this for over seven years, and have been expanding the whole time. Each location is unique, of course - maybe he was just a bit too early: the Aramingo Avenue location is in a very new shopping center, and the Walmart only just opened in April. That brings a lot of traffic, business for the restaurant.
Zagat: Were you in the restaurant business before Sonic? How did you get involved with the brand? Did you have a special connection to it?
DW: I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old. As an adult, I spent 10 years at Aramark, and then I got into the technology side of the food business. That job had me traveling a lot, and when I was in the Midwest I ran into a Sonic.
I grew up in Ridley Park, PA, and we used to have a drive-in restaurant called The Mug that I loved as a kid. Sonic reminded me of that, and it stuck in the back of my mind. I thought that someday, if I’m looking to do something on my own, the concept would be great for Philly.
Zagat: Speaking of that, can we expect to see a Sonic in Center City any time soon?
DW: I’d say there’s a greater than 50% - no, make that 75% chance that in the next few years you’ll see a Center City location. It will be a storefront, and will have all the charm and great food of a Sonic, just without the drive-in part. Actually all of our new stores will have enclosed seating areas, even if they are also drive-ins.
Zagat: So all Sonic menus are the same?
DW: There’s a core menu that’s at every single location around the country (and every item is served all day long), but then there are regional favorites franchise owners can select from. We can also suggest new items for the menu. A few years ago, I introduced a cheesesteak to a few of my stores. The sandwich was so successful, it was adopted by corporate, and is now an option for anyone around the country to add. This year the Philadelphia Cheesesteak is on the menu in 26 markets, which equates to 70 different Sonics serving it.
What I’m most proud of is that the Sonic cheesesteaks is actually good! I’d put it up against anyone’s in Philly. It’s made with prime beef and American cheese, and served with or without onions. The best part is every single one is served on a classic Amoroso roll. I put a lot of effort into making sure Amoroso got that contract - it wouldn’t be a real cheesesteak without the right bread!