Would-be patrons' fruitless attempts to pry food and drink from wary workers in training will come to an end Tuesday when the Chicago area's newest fast-food joint finally opens
By Christopher Borrelli | Chicago Tribune reporter
The heart wants what it wants (I want a pony!), and sometimes it wants Chili Cheese Tots and Cherry Limeade, and sometimes the heart is dashed on the concrete dividers of a strip mall parking lot (Oh, this is going to be good. Got that itch. I can feel it.).
The other day, three very large men (Awesome. I think I'm gonna like this Mr. Borelli.) in a very small car rolled up behind the Sonic Drive-In in Aurora. The smell of tar was pungent. In nearby fields little yellow flags from new developments flapped in the wind. The largest of the men, in the passenger seat, with a stomach so vast and gelatinous it rested on the dashboard as if taking a lunch break (Bhahaha!!!), rolled down his window. His right arm hung over the window lip like a dead goose. "You people open yet?" (That's about right.) he asked. Sonic general manager Ray Mejia shook his head. "Tuesday," he said. The man slapped his palm hard against the metal of the car door. "The 19th," Mejia said.
It has been like this for weeks, since Sonic, the first in the Chicago area, Sonic No. 3,456 in the 55-year-old Oklahoma-based carhop chain, began showing signs of life—since its teenage trainees began learning how to roller-skate in the parking lot (How long until some gang of teenagers finds it amusing to blard into these guys just for shits and giggles? I'll give it a week.) while balancing trays of milkshakes and the pavement was power washed and the new employees began eating lunch on the patio overlooking Kirk Road and strolling out back for smoke breaks or sneaking over to Starbucks (Snuck in a Starbucks reference. I think I'm being baited. Cheeky devil.). It opens tomorrow. For weeks, however, the line of cars has not stopped at 2974 Kirk Rd., the potential customers not ceased; they slow, beg for food, ask when, what day, what time—now? "This is craziness," Mejia said, and turned to meet the SUV that replaced the car of large men. "The 19th," he said. (What is this? Iowa?)
"The 19th," he said.
And sighed. "If we didn't have these barricades we wouldn't get anything done," he said, waving over to the dark green Dumpsters blocking the entrances. See, with trial comes innovation. When training began, the cars on Kirk and Butterfield Roads were turning off, assuming Sonic was open; so the employees placed orange cones in the entrances. Brad Zithey, wearing his new black Sonic shirt, put his hands on his hips and recalled the Battle of the Parking Lot as if it were 'Nam: "Man, they just drove over those cones, just straight over those cones, like they weren't there, like they didn't care." So the staff shifted to Dumpsters. (Anybody else think this is getting too awesome for words? "They're hicks, Rita.")
But people on motorcycles steered around them. Sometimes people climbed from their cars, rolled the Dumpsters to one side, then drove in, only to be told, "Sorry, open the 19th."
It's here we should tell you, if you're not aware of Sonic, if you've only seen the commercials, if you swear off cheap burgers or eat them every day: Sonic is simply a fast-food restaurant, nothing more—not a fast-food restaurant in the shape of the Virgin Mary, not the spring of eternal youth, not a philosophy or a mega church. (Well. I couldn't say it better than that. I don't think anyone could. Mr. Boretti, you are officially invited over for dinner at my house anytime.)
They sell fries.
Online, however, there are MySpace pages that pledge allegiance to Sonic; on Facebook, there is a page (with 236 members) dedicated to welcoming Sonic to Chicago. "What's interesting here is that Sonic has managed to create this intense demand by withholding their product," said Suresh Ramanathan, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's business school. "They've been advertising on a national scale for years—in Chicago for years without being here—and it created a plaintive cry: 'Why can't we have Sonic?' Unlike Apple or Harley-Davidson, which have cults, these guys are building one by not being available nationwide. Clever." (Cripes! What would happen if someone withheld toilets...or showers? Wait, I don't think that would matter.)
In truth, said Drew Ritger, Sonic's senior vice president of development, they are in 37 states, including elsewhere in Illinois; they plan to open a few more locations near Chicago within the next year, and as many as 40 more near Chicago within the next six years. He said the reason for the fanatical reaction to Sonic stems partly "from a nostalgia." Every corner of the country has a beloved fast-food chain: California has more than most, but In-N-Out Burger (which ran away with the Tribune poll accompanying this article. 3700 votes total for 'What's your favorite fast-food burger?') and Fatburger (set to arrive here next month) have slavish followings. In New England, Dunkin' Donuts is religion. (along with racist Red Sox fans.)
But nostalgia for a place where you've never eaten? "I think all this buildup is because it's not McDonald's," said Andrew Soep of Highland Park, who posted online about Sonic. "It's not ubiquitous. I think it's that thing where the place with the best burgers is always going to be 150 miles away." (On a side note, kinda diggin' Culver's lately. Hey, maybe a poll!)
In Aurora, Sonic stands at the corner of one of those vast commercial plains that resemble vast commercial strips nearly everywhere—it could be Arizona, it could be New Hampshire. Beige and brown and drab off-whites dominate (Still lovin' him. Seriously, good food, good wine.) A water tower is the highest structure. "The phone has been ringing for weeks about Sonic," said Sherman Jenkins, Aurora's executive director of economic development. "My niece even told me she was taking the day off when it opens." (Oh. Em. Gee!) John Meyer, one of the four men who runs the Aurora franchise, said they haven't spent a dime on advertising.
A minivan with three teenage girls pulled up. "I've seen the commercials, and it looks, like (Natch!), so amazing," said Carolyn Foote, 15. She and her friends cut short a trip to the zoo to see if Sonic had opened. It hadn't. But her mother parked the van and the girls walked side by side toward the restaurant. A minute later, breathless, they returned: "He said they can't give us food because it's too early but they can give us like drinks so he's like bringing them over and they gave us like this like Java Chill thing and I am so excited," (Okay, I've now upped the offer. I'm crackin' out the good stuff, Mr. Borelli. Get your ass to dinner.) Carolyn said. They drove away, replaced with a middle-age woman named Kris Naga wearing a gray "Titanic Swim Team" T-shirt who launched into a stream of consciousness explanation for why she was here—like Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," trying to understand why he was having these visions. She jumped in place, then explained:
Her son told her to come but he gave her the wrong address and she's not clairvoyant and he's an air traffic controller and that's a hard job and she first tried Sonic when he was training in Oklahoma and she loves, loves, loves Sonic and do you know if there's a Sonic in the Twin Cities and she used to drive a bus and she can't wait for Sonic to open and she's driving a van now but unfortunately it's not big enough to push over a Dumpster. And then, abruptly, she moved off toward a Sonic employee. (I don't even know Mr. Borelli, but he's now my new best friend. We're BFFs. I may start stalking him.)
Laura Demchuk pulled up in a minivan.
"It's not that we're crazy for Sonic," she said as her son craned his neck to see if there was movement from the restaurant. "We're not nuts. There's just nothing around here. This Wal-Mart was a big deal. The Sonic is nice. It's great that it's here, and I can't wait, either. But now it would be nice to have a real restaurant in this part of Aurora. We need an Olive Garden." (Ladies and Gentlemen, THAT is how you close a mother fucking article! Mr. Borelli, you are a god in my world. And to get that past the editors of the Chicago Tribune? You are heretofore my favoritest writer in the history of history.)