How do you come up with a limited-time offering that sells 300 to 400 percent more than average promotions?
Gary Wilkerson, president of Kergan Brothers Sonic franchise group, can tell you. His company, which operates Sonic Drive-Ins throughout Louisiana, launched the Ragin' Cajun burger on Aug. 27. The item, which is still available, has been "off-the-grid successful," Wilkerson said.
Since the launch, comp sales over last year at this time have been up 10 to 13 percent at the 25 restaurants offering the burger. Transactions have been up 8 to 10 percent. Notably, the Ragin' Cajun hasn't cannibalized any of Sonic's existing cheeseburger business.
"In this business, if you can move the needle 2 percent over last year, you're a hero," Wilkerson said. "This has really been a home run."
Additionally, Kergan Brothers Sonic barely advertised the burger – running a limited radio schedule during the first week and that's it. Most of the item's success has come from word of mouth and social media.
Executing the burger
Wilkerson said he came up with the idea after seeing an edible logo on a pizza.
"Edible logos aren't new. But when I saw one on a pizza, I was intrigued enough to ask around to see if I could get one small enough to put on a bun," he said.
Wilkerson sourced out an edible logo company (he prefers not to name the company for competitive purposes) and pitched the idea to come up with a logo for his market's fan favorite University of Louisiana-Lafayette. The partners worked out a formula to make the sizing work and beta tested the item. Kergan Brothers wanted to get the burger's taste and logo placement down before bringing the idea to the university and Sonic headquarters for approval.
"This was whimsical enough that I had to make sure it would actually work before presenting it," Wilkerson said. "It's just not what large chains do – letting franchise groups produce their own hamburger, with their own recipe, and also adding that logo. They put faith in our group to execute this properly."
In addition to the logo, the burger also appeals to local palates – it's topped with Tabasco mayonnaise, pepper jack cheese, fried crispy onions and served with a packet of Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning.
Kergan Brothers Sonic's research showed that no other company has ever stamped an edible logo with full color on a hamburger bun. Once the UL-Lafayette design was chosen, the company went through a number of training sessions with its employees learning how to apply the logo. Managers and district managers were also included in pre-rollout meetings, an unusual move for an LTO launch.
"We had to come up with an application that was repeatable in a fast food environment, where we're serving 500 tickets a day," Wilkerson said. "We needed something that a part-time employee could follow easily and get out to customers at peak lunch time without compromising speed of service."
Taste-testing the new burger recipe was also a priority. The company tried out 10 different recipes before deciding on the final version.
"It would have been a lot easier to slap the logo onto a Sonic cheeseburger," Wilkerson said.
But the company was determined to get guests in the door for the novelty of the logo, and to get them to come back because they liked the new taste profile.
Executives specifically chose Louisiana favorites such as Tabasco spicy mayo and Tony Chachere Creole seasoning. Co-branding gave the burger "instant equity," Wilkerson said.
What's next for the 'branded burger'
The Ragin' Cajun burger will be available until the end of December for the suggested price of $3.49. Once college football season ends, Wilkerson said the company will evaluate what to do next.
Wilkerson, who has been with the Sonic organization for nine years, said it is "without question" the most successful LTO he's been a part of.
"We had a junior banana split for 99 cents a couple of years ago and we sold a lot of them. That was a very big promotion and the numbers we're seeing with this resemble that," he said. "But this one didn't have advertising. It's successful only because of the customers."
He has been (and continues to be) approached by numerous Sonic franchisees, as well as by other schools and professional sports teams – including the Kansas Jayhawks, New Orleans Hornets and Anaheim Ducks – about re-creating the item to fit their organization. It is repeatable, he said, and it wouldn't surprise him to see it expanded next year.
"In this business, we're all fighting for new customers," Wilkerson said. "You have to find a way to get more new customers than the guy down the street. People are buying this because the burger's cool – nobody's done it. And they're buying it again because the burger's so good."
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Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.