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60 Years of SONIC: Meet Manager-Turned-Franchisee Gene Longworth

June 20, 2019
By Raj Prashad

Business was booming in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1958. Troy Smith’s Top Hat restaurant concept had become a hometown favorite by serving up hamburgers and root beers “at the speed of sound.” As he replicated his business model across Oklahoma, he selected nearby Stillwater and began construction on a new drive-in. All he needed was a quality manager to run it. The perfect person for the job, Troy discovered, would be an old friend: Gene Longworth.

Gene worked with Troy briefly as a teen, lending a hand on his bread delivery route nearly 10 years prior. But in the years since, Troy had moved on to start his dream of building a drive-in restaurant company. And coincidentally, when Gene reconnected with Troy, Gene was looking for a career change.

“I was eating a sandwich at Troy’s steakhouse when he asked if I’d be interested in managing the Stillwater drive-in,” Gene said. “I was excited because I saw the success Troy had after he installed canopies and a speaker system for orders in Shawnee. At the time, it was pretty obvious this was going to be something big. But I don’t think any of us realized we were creating history.”

The opening day in Stillwater was an instant success as cars packed the drive-in well into the evening. By 1959, as Troy focused on expanding his brand, he learned that another organization has already secured trademark protection over the name Top Hat. Troy decided to come up with a new name for his growing business. He searched through the dictionary and landed on “SONIC” to match his drive-in’s “service with the speed of sound” slogan. The Stillwater Top Hat was the first drive-in to be renamed SONIC and boasts the location of the very first SONIC Drive-In sign.

After 60 years, Gene’s passion for SONIC is just as strong today as it’s ever been. He served as a manager in Stillwater for 13 years, eventually becoming a franchisee. His SONIC family tree stretches from Oklahoma to Tennessee, with countless team members (including his own children) moving from working in the kitchen to becoming partners in the business themselves. But for Gene, one of his proudest accomplishments is helping SONIC grow from four to more than 3,600 drive-ins nationwide.

“Troy and I thought if we could build 40 stores in our lifetime, we’d be doing good,” Gene said.

“For SONIC to spread nationwide, it’s unbelievable. Becoming a SONIC franchisee was always the best business you could get into. Our operations in the restaurants and our ability to get a guest’s order out to them quickly, I think it’s the best system in the business.”

Today, the original SONIC sign still sits proudly by the road in front of the newly renovated Stillwater drive-in. The first location has been rebuilt to include an outdoor fire feature and three big-screen televisions underneath the large covered patio, as well as a 24-hour drive-thru.

To celebrate his lifetime of service, Gene will return to the Stillwater restaurant on June 28 and 29, when SONIC will serve 60-cent floats on Friday and $1 hot dogs on Saturday.