december 2009

Troy Smith, founder of Sonic Drive-Ins

Cheeseburgers and Fries, On Wheels

Troy Smith, Founder of Sonic Drive-Ins

1922-October 26, 2009

In 1953 Troy Smith was a long way from becoming a legend in American business annals. That was the year he opened a root beer stand called The Top Hat, in Shawnee, OK. After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Smith had returned to his home state, where he had been born in 1922, with a dream of owning his own business. While driving a milk truck, then a bread truck, he founded The Cottage Café, sold it a year later and opened the larger Troy’s Grill (with its specialty being “Troy’s Panful O’ Chicken”). A loyal Grill customer suggested Smith go in partners with him on both a root beer stand and a new, upscale steak house on the same property. After five years, Smith found the economics of the root beer stand more attractive than the slim profit margins from the steakhouse and decided to focus his energies on the former. Right on time to take advantage of post-war America’s love affair with cars and car travel, a burgeoning teen culture fueled by new, upbeat music and colorful fashions, and the general quickening pace of daily life in a country on the move, Smith developed a drive-in concept that featured angled parking (an innovation Smith developed to keep "wild teenagers," as he said, from parking right next to each other) and an intercom speaker system through which customers could place their orders, which would then be delivered to their cars by roller skating attendants.

A Sonic Drive-In in Shawnee, OK, in the early 1960s

In partnership with Charlie Pappe, of Woodward, OK, Smith expanded the root beer stand, called The Top Hat, to locations in Stillwater, Woodward and Enid, OK. Ambitious entrepreneurs approached Smith and Pappe about franchising Top Hats to other parts of the country. But after failing to copyright the Top Hat name in 1958, Smith asked his wife, Dolly, whom he had married in 1940, to look up “speed of sound” in Webster’s Dictionary. When she came back with a definition that included the word “sonic,” the Top Hat name was retired, and Sonic (motto: “Service At the Speed of Sound”) became one of the great business success stories of the 20th Century. From its first location in Stillwater the business grew steadily, spreading to small towns throughout Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas. Today, Sonic Drive-Ins number 3,600 in 42 states and serve more than a million customers a day; the Oklahoma City-based Sonic Corp. is a $600 million publicly traded company based in Oklahoma City. The chain is defined by its constant push to update its menu with new products, with many of its most popular food and dessert offerings generated from employee suggestions. Earlier this year, Sonic celebrated the 50th anniversary of the company's name change, which included the publishing of a book titled Sonic: The History of America's Drive-In, written by Bob Blackburn of the Oklahoma History Center.

Troy Smith died on October 26. He was 87. His wife, Dollie (born Dollie Twiggs) survives him, as do a daughter, Leslie Baugh; a son, Troy "Butch" Smith Jr.; eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

sonic-logoBob Blackburn, who worked with Smith on the newly published Sonic history, said the company founder never lost his enthusiasm for business or his entrepreneurial instincts. "He was very humble, giving credit to his associates who went into other states and made this Oklahoma company a national company," Blackburn said. "He was as excited seeing one of his associates succeed as he was to see his own stores succeed. He believed in shared responsibility and shared profit. He knew to motivate people as partners or through salaries. He believed in a collaborative process."

In 2006, Smith and his wife, Dollie, donated $5 million toward construction of a new YMCA in Shawnee, and presented gifts to Oklahoma Baptist University there. Smith also donated to Oklahoma City University and, in his adopted hometown of Edmond, the University of Central Oklahoma, where the business administration building is named for him.

A Sonic cheeseburger, medium fries (or tots), and a medium cherry Dr. Pepper with extra ice sound pretty good right about now.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024