It has been said a lot lately that people in Middletown are really craving a Sonic burger with a side of carside service.
Just talk to Township Planner Jason Greenspan. Where ever he goes, people ask him when the Sonic Drive-In, greenlighted by the township's Zoning Board of Adjustment in December, will serve its first motoring customers.
"I guess people are salivating for a Sonic," Greenspan said.
It’s just a matter of time — and getting all the logistics organized — before the Oklahoma City-based company breaks ground for its 1700-square-foot drive-in on the now grassy swath in front of the shopping center fronting Route 35 anchored by Staples and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
"They’re satisfying a few of the last remaining conditions of the zoning board approval before they apply for building permits," Greenspan said. "A few things need to be tied up."
However, to date, no opening date has been set, he added.
"[Sonic] is diligently moving forward to meet the conditions of the zoning board," Greenspan said.
The fast-food eatery will face the jughandle that allows traffic coming off Route 35 northbound to cross over to either Kings Highway or Route 35 south, he noted.
"It will appear as a pad site within the shopping center, but (will actually be) on its own lot," Greenspan explained.
Once constructed, Sonic will consist of a main building for food preparation, a canopy over an outdoor patio with tables and circular parking lot. Individual parking stalls, partially covered by awnings, characteristically comprise the main seating area at Sonic, which has 3,500 drive-ins across the country according to its company Web site.
Having a Sonic in the township will also be a retro and convenience eatery win rolled into one for many who crave the atmosphere of window-hung fast food and that special order of wait staff on roller skates.
Roller skating carhops — more common at drive-in eateries like Stewart’s Root Beer during the 1950s and 1960s — are the novelty associated with Sonic, which bills itself as "America’s Drive-In."
Upon driving into a Sonic site, patrons pull into an empty parking stall where a kiosk displaying menu items is stationed at the driver's side window. After browsing and selecting menu items, patrons order their meals by entering numbers on the kiosk's keypad. The kiosks also feature call boxes for those who would rather verbalize their orders.
Payments can be made by swiping a debit or credit card or by paying cash to the carhop delivering the order.
"It’s geared towards drivers that want to eat in their cars,"
Weather permitting, customer can choose to sit at the metal tables in the outdoor patio area. An ordering kiosk is located there as well.
Though Sonic has no indoor seating, the chain's restaurants are open year-round, the company Web site states.
To ensure patron safety and to comply with the zoning board approval, Sonic has agreed to paint parking lot stripes and to place signage to safely direct traffic around its premises. The parking lot configuration and signage will be coordinated with the owners
of the neighboring shopping center, Greenspan said.
While acknowledging the heavy traffic that already travels through the Route 35 and Harmony Road intersection and into the shopping center, Greenspan believes the recently placed traffic signal at Overton Drive will ease congestion.
"Hopefully, the new signal on Harmony Road is helping with traffic calming and safety," he said.
Sonic will sit across Route 35 from Wendy’s, itself a stand-alone pad site next to Sears.
McDonald’s and Burger King offer similar fast-food cuisine further south on Route 35 in the vicinity of Tindall Road. Both chains have competed in Middletown for more than 30 years.
Even further down the road, a Five Guys Burgers and Fries is housed in the shopping center just south of Apple Farm Road and the Normandy Road overpass. Unlike its competitors in the township, Five Guys does not offer drive-in service.
Another Sonic Drive-In is in the early stages of construction on Shrewsbury Avenue in Tinton Falls. Like the one approved in Middletown, that drive-in will be stand-alone structure on its own pad separate from an A&P supermarket and other stores.
In the meantime, the sole operational Sonic in Monmouth County is located at Route 9 and New Friendship Road in Howell Township. That one is self-contained on its own lot. The company web site lists other sites in Toms River and points in South Jersey.
Sonic Corporation is publicly held and has operated mainly
in the southern states since the 1950s. Stores are either owned and operated by the company or franchised. Through its “Limeade for Learning” program, it has given $1.3 million to public schools in the communities where it does business, according to the company Web site.