Sonic Drive-In opens in Bradenton after four-year absence

MANATEE -- Customers and car hops rolled through Sonic Drive-In in Bradenton Tuesday morning for the first time in four years.

Sonic at 6008 14th St. W. officially made its return to Bradenton at the same location it unexpectedly left in November 2010 offering up its familiar burgers, shakes and tots. Sonic is open 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. A grand opening with specials is set for 3:30 p.m. Feb. 2.

Customer George Taylor pulled into a car stall shortly after 9:30 a.m., in between doing contract work for Florida Power & Light. The Memphis, Tenn., native was elated to have Sonic for breakfast.

"I'm tired of eating the rest of this junk around here, and I had a taste for some good Sonic," Taylor said before diving into an extra long Coney hot dog. "I'm glad they opened up."

Mississippi-based franchisee McClain, Vaughn and Partners Sonic Group reacquired the Bayshore Gardens location through a lease with Benderson Development Co., and in about a month's time was able to outfit the building with Sonic's newest kitchen equipment and technology.

"Sonic is back in Bradenton and thrilled to be a part of Manatee County. We have hired a terrific team from here in the local area and have invested in new equipment and technology for this location," said MVP Chief Executive Buddy McClain. "We look forward to working with schools and other parts of our Bradenton community as it is our newest home for Sonic."

One feature -- the first for any Tampa Bay area Sonic -- are the new menu boards, offering a color video screen that also will display a customer's order as opposed to the small green LCD screens at most locations. The screen and the technology in the board are built to work with a new Sonic smartphone app feature that will launch soon.

"In the future there will be online ordering capability. The sys

tem is going to be smart knowing who the customers are and what they want," said Jason McNeill, regional vice president of operations for MVP. "... This is where the entire brand will be. At Florida, some restaurants are on this now, but nothing in the Tampa area."

Sonic is based in Oklahoma City and has built success on its 1950s feel with its skating car hops and road trip food. The fast-food restaurant has added some new items recently McNeill said will be popular, including waffle cone sundaes, boneless wings, a mini hot dog and more slush flavors.

Sonic hired 80 people for the Bradenton location and is looking to add more, said general manager Scott Hunter, who moved from Pensacola to take over the Bradenton restaurant.

He's a 20-year Sonic veteran who helped open Pensacola's first Sonic at age 16.

"I took it as a summer job just to buy a car and 20 years later, it's still my first job," Hunter said.

Customers will also see familiar faces of Sonic employees who worked at Manatee County Sonics before. MVP also had Sonics on State Road 64, U.S. 301 in Palmetto and Ellenton.

Carissa Baker, 26 of Ellenton, worked at the Bradenton Sonic up until it closed in 2010. She was 17 when she started and remembered how busy the restaurant was and was sad to see it close. The franchise, through its Boyz N Burgers LLC, closed 11 Tampa Bay locations in November 2010 after defaulting on $37 million of loans from Bank of America.

"It was emotional. All of us had a huge going away Sonic party," Baker said. "We came up, helped them clean the store out and we sat out here for an hour and a half and reminisced on our years here and how much fun it was."

She can't believe four years have passed and now she's back as a skating car hop, which gives Sonic that retro feel. (Customers are encouraged to tip their car hops, too.) Baker said although she's been skating for years, she may tumble once in a great while with food in hand. But rolling around helps speed up her day.

"I actually feel like it's a lot quicker. I move a lot quicker than I do if I were walking," she said. "There were times where I would walk and car hop and it took me forever to get to the other side."

Jesse Martinez, 25, worked at the former Palmetto Sonic on U.S. 301 where Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins stand today. The Hillsborough County resident is now an assistant manager, wanting to be part of opening a new location.

"I loved working for Sonic when I was young," said Martinez, who started at Sonic at age 16 as a car hop after working at a skating rink. "It's fun. It's not just a job."

More positions are available at the Sonic and those interested can apply at MVP, which runs 63 Sonics in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, plans to open other Sarasota-Bradenton area locations, McNeill said.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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