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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Light Rain
The Daily
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Let the Cherry Limeades flow at the new Sonic in Madison
Popular national drive-in chain makes local debut
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Indeed, this location scored one of the highest demographic evaluations for all of SONIC, nationwide.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Opening a chain franchise isn't always easy. Fuddrucker's tried in Madison, and failed. Steak 'n Shake similarly dropped out in short order. Krispy Kreme never even got a shingle hung in Madison.

Known commodity plus a new market equals a lot of expectations to be met and doubts to be cast aside. So you'll have to excuse Brad Bailey's enthusiasm as the first Sonic Drive-In gets ready to celebrate its grand opening in the greater Madison area. Apparently, he hasn't heard the news.

Bailey, former principal of both Brocach and the erstwhile Mad Dog's Chicago Style Eatery, spent much of Saturday trying to stay warm as he watched customers stream into the new Sonic at 6413 University Avenue in Middleton. The sound of buzzy, rattling drive-up speakers at 22 stalls and the constant hum of idling car engines must have drowned out the naysayers.

There are currently four discussion topics on The Daily Page Forum dedicated to Sonic and its purported 168,894 drink combinations -- believe it or not, actual math has gone into that number, and it's probably an undershot. The first, which was started months before any news or press releases hit the wire, may very well have been started by someone affiliated with Sonic just to build buzz. (Then there's the second, third, and now, fourth.) Certainly, the chain has a battle-plan of softening the ground before opening, as we've been seeing their television commercials for a couple years now.

I won't begrudge them that, however; the chain appears to relish doing its homework before committing to a new franchise. Bailey told me that Sonic does, as any good business should do, extensive demographic evaluation of potential build sites. (This particular site on University was formerly occupied by Rusty's tavern from 1962 until last September.) They "like to see rooftops," as he put it. Being part of or near to a residential neighborhood is important, and too many cars whizzing by detracts from the presence they strive to achieve.

Cars whizzing by was precisely one of the problems on Saturday, as four or five ended up in a somewhat calamitous chain-reaction fender-bender while I was enjoying my Sonic Burger. That probably only proves the interest level in Sonic in this neck of the woods, as the necks of drivers-by craned to see the fuss. Indeed, this location scored one of the highest demographic evaluations for all of Sonic, nationwide. People know SONIC here, and they want it.

They want their Ocean Water, a not-bad-at-all mix of Sprite and blue coconut flavoring. They want their chili-cheese tots. They want their Sausage Biscuit Dippers, though they can have mine; I maxed out on the bite-sized gutbombs halfway through my order. And they definitely, if they know what's good for 'em, want their Cherry Limeades, replete with actual cherry and lime as garnish.

I won't say Sonic is the fast-food Mecca that some make it out to be. And I definitely won't use the "sonic boom" pun that so many media outlets -- including two from Madison -- slouch into using. It's pretty good, and kind of fun, but it's not an old buddy I feel the need to high-five when he shows up in town for the weekend.

Bailey and partner Paul Frautschi have a contract for up to eight Sonic locations in Wisconsin, including a maximum of three in the Madison area, the other two possibly slated for the east side and Verona. Soon enough they'll be as ubiquitous as Potbelly or Chipotle.

The staff are still getting their feet under them. My dining companion's two food items were delivered incomplete, and the ordering process will need to be smoothed out. But these are first-day jitters, the nervousness of someone on a blind date.

When the grand opening kicks off at 11 a.m. on Monday, January 26, the official scoring will really begin on Sonic's performance. As for their chances of survival, well, judging from the crowd, I'd guess they'll do just fine.

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