In fast food burgers, geography is key

Sonic is America’s fourth biggest burger chain, a fact that might surprise you if you live outside of the South. Sonic’s are located mostly around Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi.

There are about 3,500 Sonic locations. But the company plans on opening 1,000 more locations over the next decade. “With this move, we see Sonic entering that arena of largest national players and leaving behind those regional players,” says Patrick Lenow, a spokesperson for Sonic, which is known for reviving the classic American drive-in. Food is ordered through an intercom and delivered to your car, often by servers on roller skates.

A graphic created by Stephen Von Worley of Data Pointed shows the concentration of fast-food burger chains around the country. (Courtesy of Stephen Von Worley/Data Pointed)

“The main difference that sets drive-ins and drive-thrus apart is that the demand for drive-ins is more heavily dependent on the weather,” says Hester Jeon, an analyst with IBIS World. “Sonic’s business dips pretty dramatically during the colder months.”

That may explain why it’s focusing much of its expansion in California. “When I think of one of the most successful burger chains in America, I think of In-N-Out Burger, which originated in California as a drive-in,” says Darren Tristano, a foodservice concept & menu expert with Technomic.

Another way Sonic differentiates itself from its competitors is by emphasizing its non-burger menu items, like the more than a million different soda flavors it offers. “They also sell hot dogs that are very regionalized in terms of flavor and have items like tater-tots on the menu,” Tristano says.

So, if you don’t live in the South, and you get a late night craving for chocolate-pineapple soda and tater tots delivered on roller skates, you may soon be able to satisfy it.


Burger Poster

By Shea Huffman and Gina Martinez /Marketplace

The data for the graphic above was provided by a Marketforce Information survey on American's favorite burger chain by region:

Courtesy of Marketforce Information

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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