Classic drive-in restaurant Sonic has long been known for its roller-skating carhops, a standout in the fast-food industry. Last week, Sonic expanded tipping to 2,033 of its 3,500 units and is expected to roll out this option systemwide soon.
Traditionally, Sonic Drive-Ins do not offer indoor dining options. Customers order at the window and the Sonic carhop brings the order to the customer’s car once it’s ready. Carhops then collect payment—sometimes on wheels. Carhops report that customers tip infrequently, but it is more common than at other fast-food restaurants where tipping is rare. Tipping has not been expected. As Sonic transitioned alongside the market towards a more app-driven ordering model, the chain began trialing tipping integration earlier this year. The function was rolled out at an initial 1,000 locations with the ability to tip via credit/debit payment and through the app.
Curbside ordering trends have influenced Sonic’s competitors as well. Taco Bell has also taken on the carhop model, using analogous “bellhops” at its new Go Mobile locations in 2020. The Go Mobile locations are less than half the square footage of average Taco Bell locations, replacing reduced in-restaurant dining capacity with differentiated drive-thru lanes that fast-track customers with app-pickup orders. Similarly, Shake Shack is continuing to expand its “Shack Track”, and Chipotle is cashing in on its contactless drive-thru model Chipotlane.
The integration of tipping into employment payment has been reported as inconsistent across different states, with some carhops earning ‘tipped’ wages (similar to servers) and others earning full minimum wage plus tips. As pandemic trends of reduced indoor dining and increased drive-thru usage continue, models of compensation and hospitality will continue to evolve for the fast-food industry.