Just a few drive-thrus down from where the last Southern fast-food import tried its luck with Minnesota tastebuds, the state's first Sonic drive-in restaurant has for the past two weeks been pulling thousands of cars a day into lines that are sometimes hours long.
On Sunday afternoon, the lines for burgers, fries and slushes at Sonic on Suburban Avenue in St. Paul were actually a bit shorter -- only about 25 to 35 minutes -- but the enthusiasm was just as strong.
"We've driven by it twice," said Lorray Jonason of Oakdale, admitting they were previously driven away by long waits.
"This is the third time we've tried and the first time we've stayed," said her husband, Reed.
They'd been waiting about a half hour, based solely on the recommendation of their son, who once did computer support for Sonic in another state. And, well, they've been intrigued by all the commercials. Years ago, Minnesota television viewers started seeing Sonic commercials featuring Happy Hours with half-priced soft drinks, and all kinds of seemingly unattainable food.
And a seemingly doomed-to-be unrequited urge was born.
Unrequited until two weeks ago, that is.
"Tell you the truth, last fall we were in Knoxville, Iowa, and we drove right by a Sonic and we didn't stop at it," Lorray Jonason said. "I don't know why. But this time we really wanted to come. Still, this hasn't been quite as big as that Krispy Kreme."
Ah. Krispy Kreme, the last Southern-born fast-food phenomenon to hit Minnesota, also opened to long lines and huge hype a couple of years ago.
Despite the blitz and the longing and the lines, Krispy Kreme's glazed doughnuts eventually just went away. All that early hype, all that gooey excitement -- gone.
It's a fate that Todd Dolan, a Sonic district manager, doesn't anticipate for these drive-ins. Two more are opening in Minnesota later this summer -- in Elk River in July and in Savage in August.
The Sonic menu -- burgers, chicken, ice cream, onion rings -- is much more diverse than Krispy Kreme's, Dolan said, adding, "After all, did they have anything besides doughnuts?"
Fast food? Not so fast
Sonic employee Arthur Norwood stood at the "staging area" -- a Catholic Charities parking lot about a half-block away-- giving Sonic placards to salivating customers. No one could just pull into the restaurant; a police officer was discouraging that. Instead, you had to drive to the other side of the block to get into line for a placard.
The placards, kind of like a golden ticket to Wonka's chocolate factory, guaranteed a place in the drive-thru lane or an outdoor stall you can pull your car into. Sonic has no indoor seating. Customers can either eat on an outdoor patio, eat in their cars (with food brought to you by wait staff on roller skates) or go through the drive-thru.
Norwood said his manager told him that thousands of cars a day have not been unusual.
Is it the commercials?
"I know for a fact that's why we're so big," Norwood said. "My manager said that we're going to have to do this staging area for a month or two."
Tatricia Cook didn't mind the wait. She's eaten at Sonic before, in Mississippi. Her fiancée and her son, who seemed less enthusiastic about a half-hour wait in the car, would just have to trust her on this one.
"It's really good," she promised them.
Dolan, who will run the Elk River Sonic when it opens, was asked how long this kind of crazy traffic can continue. "I hope it's like this for the rest of my life," he said.
On Sonic's first morning, 19 cars were waiting when the store opened at 6 a.m.
Yeah, but what about in January? Dolan said his bosses aren't daunted by opening a restaurant with no indoor seating in Minnesota -- you know, where it gets really cold. They have Sonics in Iowa and Detroit, he said. And, when it snows, they're going to plow the stalls and still have staff bring food out to cars.
"We'll work it out," he said.
"Maybe we'll trade ice skates for roller skates," Norwood said.
All the way from Fargo
Parked in a stall, putting away the last bites of their jalapeño burgers, with mustard, onion rings and cherry limeade, Sylvia Garcia and her husband, Israel, insisted the food was worth their 45-minute wait. Actually, they drove all the way from Fargo, N.D., for those burgers. Sylvia Garcia has good memories of Sonic from her earlier life down South.
"It was one of my treats, to come here," she said of coming all the way to St. Paul for Sonic.
And was it worth it?
"Oh yeah," she said, smiling.
James Walsh • 651-298-1541