Rule No. 1: Tip the roller-skating carhops at the Sonic Drive-in. They deserve it.
Harley Blessing laced up her skates for the first time Wednesday afternoon as 143 freshly hired carhops, cooks, order takers, drink mixers and shake stirrers launched into Day 1 of training at the South Hill Puyallup drive-in.
The goal? Be ready for the 10 a.m. grand opening Monday – the first, highly anticipated Sonic in the Puget Sound metropolitan region. Puyallup Mayor Don Malloy will cut the ribbon.
Other mayors should start warming up their ceremonial scissors. Sonic franchise owner David Orem filed a building permit application this week for his second Sonic – in the Lowe’s parking lot on Highway 410 in Bonney Lake. And he expects to sign lease deals soon on two sites in Tacoma.
After that? Orem is scouting out Aberdeen, Shelton, Olympia, Bremerton, Port Orchard, Silverdale and Maple Valley.
But first things first on South Hill, which hasn’t seen this much food fervor since folks camped out overnight for the July 2003 opening of Krispy Kreme.
Doughnut makers didn’t have intense drills like this, however.
Carhop trainee Blessing, 18, used a two-handed grip to balance a red tray loaded with two 44-ounce cups of ice water. She eventually lost her own balance while wheeling through the parking lot. Blessing plopped onto her derriere. One cup popped open in her lap and soaked her jeans.
“Oh my, gosh,” Blessing, of Spanaway, said moments later. “I’m so excited. I’ve loved Sonic food ever since I tried it in California when my dad lived there. … My mom is so excited I’m carhopping. When I told her about it, she said, ‘I used to eat onion rings from Sonic all the time when I was pregnant with your brother.’”
You want some double-battered onion rings? Get in line.
Drive-in managers anticipate so many customers Monday they have set up two queues – one for the drive-through, another for a spot at one of the 23 pull-in parking stalls – in a gravel lot just south of the restaurant. The traffic management plan calls for staff members with walkie-talkies to direct you to your preferred queue and hand you a paper menu so you can get familiar with the selections while you wait.
(Note: The chicken wraps and ice cream cones turned out by the trainees Wednesday tasted perfect, although the swirl on the cones needs a little work. And the onion rings? Too small. Stock managers made a notation to order larger onions.)
Sonic corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City sent in 21 “A Team” trainers who will work with their apprentices at least through May 9.
As the preparations unfolded this week, Matt Callies watched it like a proud father. The Lacey native spent 18 years learning the fast food ropes in the McDonald’s management system. He opted to jump to Sonic last year as general manager for “the chance to be part of something new, help build something big.”
Callies worked for nearly a year at the Sonic in Hillsboro, Ore., to learn the Sonic way – and discover that the brand has fanatics, not just fans.
“We had people drive 200 miles just to buy bags of ice from us,” he said. “People like our ice.” (It comes in mini-blocks about half the size of a standard Lego and with rough edges.)
“Not at all,” he said. “We’ve got everything organized. We’ve got some of the best trainers in the company, and we’ve hired some great people.”
He had plenty of options.
More than 2,000 people took applications. Roughly 1,400 sent them in, and 600 got interviews.
One of the lucky ones, 17-year-old Alisha Couch of Puyallup, tried to learn the intricacies of the Stoelting SU444-309 – the latest generation of 17-amp ice cream dispensers and the first in Sonic’s nationwide, 3,500 drive-in network.
“I’m worried about getting the shakes to the customers in two minutes,” she said. “That’s the rule. I’m really hoping it’s not too busy the first few days.”
Sorry, Alisha. Busy defines Sonic openings.
Transplants from Sonic’s Midwest roots see a chance to get reacquainted with cherry limeades. Travelers, such as Herb Lenhart of Puyallup, relive memories.
“We’ve been to Sonic many times across the country,” Lenhart said. “I’m absolutely looking forward to it.”
Cars slowed and honked often as drivers saw the action on Meridian. Meanwhile, Orem, the franchise owner, munched on a Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster and marveled at the hoopla.
His company owns 26 Taco Bell and Taco Bell/Pizza Hut restaurants. He went looking for the next “growth vehicle” in 2007 and found Sonic.
“There are a lot of hamburgers out there, as you know. But the more I learned about Sonic, the more I got interested in the brand,” Orem said. “I really like the food.
“And I’ve owned Taco Bells for a long time and I don’t remember anyone ever coming in just to buy bags of our ice.”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785