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At SONIC, and now Rusty Taco, Luke Flatin is in the People Business

Luke Flatin’s journey from restaurant team member at SONIC to successful franchisee has been rooted in strong leadership. After his first stint at SONIC at age 16, he rejoined the brand a few years later as a car hop in Kansas. And that’s when he met Bill Lauderdale under the Pete Esch Group.

“Bill taught me a lot about the business and he was really like a father figure to me. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I’d still be with SONIC,” Flatin said.  “I learned very early on that the key to success is to surround yourself with good people, and I saw that first-hand with Bill.”

In less than a year working with Lauderdale, Flatin earned an opportunity to become a general manager for the first time in his young career. Eventually, he took another step forward with the Esch Group, moving over to open a new SONIC location in Arkansas, where he once again got a crash course in strong leadership.

“I was about 20 years old and had my first opportunity to lead, opening a new store in Johnson, Arkansas, and really learning the ins and outs of the business,” Flatin said. “I worked for the Esch Group for about eight years before I decided to go on my own, with drive-ins in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa.”

Now a leader in his own right, Flatin has worked to continue paying forward the lessons he learned early on.

“I want to be able to help the people who have grown up in our group and get them to a place in their career they’re proud of,” Flatin said. “It’s one thing I’ve always tried to be with my employees is respectful to them and treat others how I’d want to be treated. Our success is rooted in these awesome people and the only way to keep them is to treat them the right way.”

Those efforts have continued in recent years as Flatin adds to his portfolio with another brand within the Inspire family: Rusty Taco.

“I hadn’t heard of Rusty Taco before Inspire,” Flatin said. “But the more research I did, and then seeing the images of their food, it looked incredible. I travel up through Omaha and Lincoln (Nebraska) all the time, so I started eating at the Rusty Taco locations when I’m driving through, and I’m a huge fan now. Everything is fresh, made from scratch and it feels like every meal is home-cooked.”

“I’m a big queso fan, and I’ve got to say Rusty Taco has the best queso I’ve ever had.”

– Luke Flatin, SONIC and Rusty Taco Franchisee

Flatin signed a three-store agreement, first taking over the Des Moines location with a former SONIC operator who is now a part-owner in the business. He also has plans to open two new locations in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, Iowa.

“I think this brand is ready to blow up. Everybody loves tacos and margaritas, they’re really the perfect pair,” Flatin said. “I think another thing that will help opportunities arise for franchisees like me, who might be interested in getting into a second brand, is the connection between all of these brands under Inspire. At this point, we see what Inspire is and how big it’s getting. It’s got a fantastic culture, the corporate team is extremely positive and ultimately everyone is here to help you succeed. I can’t wait to see how Rusty Taco continues to grow from here and I’m thankful for my experience at SONIC to get me to this point.”

To learn more about franchising opportunities at SONIC, Rusty Taco and any of the brands under Inspire, go to