This Is What Sonic Used to Be Called When It First Opened

What started as a humble hot dog stand grew into a national chain inspired by the changing times of the 1950s.

HDR image, Sonic restaurant drive up parking - Lynnfield, Massachusetts USA - September 9, 2017QualityHD/Shutterstock

When Troy Smith returned home from World War II, he was eager to start his own business. So he bought a hot dog and root beer stand called the Top Hat Drive-In near Shawnee, Oklahoma. (This is the fastest drive-thru chain in America.)

But, we bet you’ve never heard of the Top Hat Drive-In, and probably know this franchise by its current name: Sonic Drive-In. Today, Smith’s vision has grown into more than 3,600 Sonic Drive-Ins around the United States. So how did the business go from Top Hat to Sonic?

Well, for starters, Smith seized on the post-war popularity of the car and outfitted the drive-in with parking spaces, canopies, and speakers to cater to a more mobile public. “Americans had a love affair with their cars in the 1950s, and Troy saw the chance to create a unique business centered around the automobile’s sense of freedom, as well as people’s desires to celebrate everyday occasions with a made-to-order burger, hot fries, and a cold milkshake,” according to the company’s website. You might think Sonic is old, but wait until you learn which chains are the oldest in the country.

Then, Top Hat attracted the attention of another Oklahoma entrepreneur named Charlie Pappe. He and Smith became fast friends and Pappe asked if he could open another Top Hat in the town of Woodward. Smith and Pappe soon became business partners and opened new franchises in towns around Oklahoma. They looked into copyrighting the Top Hat name, only to find that it had already been taken. So Smith and Pappe decided to go with “Sonic” instead. Here’s where more of your favorite fast-food eateries started out.

Why? The year was 1959, and once again, they looked to the culture at large. Pilots were breaking the sound barrier every day, flying jets out of Tinker Air Force Base in nearby Oklahoma City, inspiring the two entrepreneurs to rename their business Sonic. With their brand new name, Smith and Pappe also launched a new slogan to go with it: “Service With the Speed of Sound.” How’s that for a re-branding? Here are some more famous restaurants that went by very different names when they first opened, too.

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.