It began quietly in the fall of 2007 with the opening of Sonic’s first New Jersey location in Waretown. Millville and Rio Grande followed in 2008.
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Then this summer New Jersey’s newfound affair with the drive-in fast-food chain built to a frenzy as owner-operated Sonic franchises arrived almost as fast as their roller-skating servers could deliver $2.99 burger-and-shake combos. There was Hainesport in May; Howell, Totowa, and Hasbrouck Heights in June; Somers Point in July; and Audubon in August.
Traffic congestion greeted every Sonic opening as Jerseyans lined up for Coney Island foot-longs and bacon-cheeseburger Toasters. The mania made news in mid-July, when an overzealous customer in the traffic line drove into a cop at the Hasbrouck Heights location.
What caused the craze? It appears that Sonic’s nationwide cable ads for more than five years stirred a craving in Jersey residents—where, alas, there were no Sonics to be found.
Nolan Aspell, owner of the Hainesport Sonic, realized the clamor was reaching epidemic levels when he made the mistake of putting his cell phone number on the “coming soon” sign on his lot. Hoping to hear from would-be servers, he was swamped with messages from eager residents instead.
“I got about 2,000 calls,” laughs Aspell. “And I answered every one of them.”
More Sonics are on the horizon. Store number ten, in Manahawkin, is due to open this month, and, according to Drew Ritger, Sonic’s vice president of planning and development, the Oklahoma City-based chain (which began in 1953 and has more than 3,500 stores nationwide) hopes to open ten more New Jersey franchises in the next twelve to eighteen months. The next Sonics are targeted for (north to south): Riverdale, Phillipsburg, Dunellen, Trenton, Franklin Park, Riverton, Browns Mills, Toms River, Pennsauken, and Sicklerville.
Our reporting trip this summer yielded yummy results—and some tips. Upon arriving at your first Sonic, decide where you’d like to dig into your chili cheese tots: You can order at a walk-up window and sit at a picnic table, use the drive-through, or park in a carhop spot. The menu can be intimidating—what with more than 168,000 drink options. Further pointers: “Ocean water” is Sprite with blue coconut flavoring; a “Route 44 upgrade” is supersizing to 44 ounces (Sonic’s largest drink size); and that large, solid object in your limeade is—gasp—actually a lime. Final word: The cherry limeade is not to be missed.
Sonic is not alone in targeting Jersey burger-vores. The Five Guys chain, based in Washington, D.C., has opened 27 sites here since 2006, and has five more planned in the coming months.
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