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New Sonic president hits the drive-in for ideas

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Pattye Moore rolls into a Sonic Drive-In for enough cherry limeades, cream pie shakes and chili-cheese coneys to quiet a carload of third-grade soccer players.

To the carhop, she looks like an average mom.

But Moore is the new president of the $2 billion fast-food chain, the largest drive-in restaurant brand in America. If the service is bad, she just might walk into the kitchen and ask what the problem is _ politely, of course.

``I will go in occasionally and ask them if they need some help or I talk to the franchisee afterward,'' she said. ``That doesn't happen often though.''

Moore would much rather visit drive-ins than sit behind her desk at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City. The best ideas hit her when she's parked next to the vast menu of old-fashioned fountain drinks.

Sonic Corp., which started with a single store in Shawnee, has grown to the No. 5 fast-food restaurant by giving customers the freedom to choose any flavor combination imaginable. The restaurants, some still with carhops on roller skates, take customers back to the ``Happy Days'' era of the 1950s.

Moore eats at Sonic with her daughters three or four times a week _ her 18-year-old invented strawberry-watermelon Sprites and her 8-year-old requests chocolate-cherry Cokes. She spends about half of her working hours visiting owners of some of the burger-flipping stores in 30 states and Mexico.

``We really get a lot of our ideas that way,'' she said, sitting at a red, metal picnic table in her office. ``We just go out and ask them what they're fixing for themselves.''

The restaurant introduced its ``toaster sandwiches'' _ burgers or chicken on thick, grilled toast _ because employees were bored of buns. A customer in a focus group suggested a new breakfast staple, sausage on a stick wrapped in a buttermilk pancake and deep fried.

The manager of an Oklahoma City store created the grilled chicken wrap, a new item this spring.

``We encourage our employees to play with their food,'' said Moore, who admits she can't stay away from the cheddar peppers and the banana cream pie shakes. ``Our concept is fun. Our food is fun. It's hard to be very serious when you're selling cherry limeades and strawberry cheesecake shakes.''

Moore, a Midwest City native, came to Sonic in 1992 as vice president of marketing after handling the company's account at a Tulsa advertising agency. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma.

Moore, 44, was executive vice president of Sonic by 2000, then promoted to president in January _ second only to Chief Executive Officer Clifford Hudson.

She is one of few women running large companies, particularly in Oklahoma. Some extra attention comes with that, she said.

``The men in senior management balance work and family,'' she said. ``We ought to be asking them about that.''

Sonic is more flexible than some companies when it comes to family events.

Executives have rescheduled board meetings because of school plays or games. And the corporate office opens at 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., which allows Moore to watch her 8-year-old get on the school bus when she's in town.

``I really don't feel any pressure there,'' said Moore, who was host of her oldest daughter's after-prom party last week.

Her husband, Mark, is an accountant who works at the University of Central Oklahoma near their home in Edmond. And her children have two sets of grandparents _ one three blocks away and another in Norman.

Moore is chairwoman of the national board of directors for the Arthritis Foundation and on the board of directors for ONEOK, Inc., a Fortune 500 oil and gas company.

Despite her hectic schedule, she stays energized because she loves meeting people and developing new strategies, she said.

``It probably sounds kind of corny, but what makes me tick is I just love what I do,'' she said. ``I love Sonic, and so while it's hard to go on trips and leave my family, it's easy to continue to be motivated because I like my job and I like the people I work with.''

When the company launched breakfast in 600 more stores this spring, reaching 1,000 of its more than 2,400 drive-ins, corporate employees wore their pajamas to work. Moore was there in her robe and slippers.

And when Sonic introduced its green apple slush, employees volunteered to stick their heads in buckets of the icy drink and bob for apples. The winner got a television.

Moore's favorite event of the year is the annual Sonic Games, where the top carhops, cooks and dessert creators compete at the national convention. Judges award medals based on quality, friendliness and speed.

``You can just imagine the excitement,'' she said. ``One kid just burst into tears when he won the gold medal for best cook. I can't even hardly talk about it without crying.

``We're often the first employer and whether they stay with us or not, we want them to have a great first-work experience.''

The original Sonic, first called the Top Hat Drive-In, opened in Shawnee in 1953. The company's slogan, ``Sonic, Service with the Speed of Sound,'' was later replaced with ``Sonic, America's Drive-In.''

Almost five decades later, the company reported second-quarter net earnings up 29 percent to $7.1 million and more than $2 billion in sales. Sonic has stores from Oregon to Florida and plans to open 190 new drive-ins this fiscal year.

``Our vision is to become America's most-loved restaurant brand,'' Moore said. ``That's a pretty bold vision. That's not necessarily being the biggest or being everywhere. That means being the best.''
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